Don’t leave us hanging

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Don’t leave us hanging

President Barack Obama says he is ready to move forward with the pending free trade agreement with South Korea. This is the first time Obama has set a deadline for the bilateral trade pact, which has been deadlocked since it was signed in 2007 due to protests from unions and politicians in the two countries. Obama told President Lee Myung-bak that supplementary talks to hammer out differences would be done in a “methodical fashion” to ensure that “everything is lined up properly” by the time he visits Seoul in November for the next G-20 Summit. He also said he intends to present a modified package to Congress a few months later.

“It is time that our United States Trade Representative work very closely with his counterpart from the ROK to make sure that we set a path, a road, so that I can present this FTA to Congress,” Obama said in a press conference following his bilateral meeting with Lee on the sidelines of the G-20 in Toronto, Canada.

The office of the USTR added that renewed talks would be focused on “readjustment” rather than complete “renegotiation” of the accord signed three years ago. The talks will likely center on removing Korea’s concerns about beef and automobile imports.

The Obama administration has disapproved of the original outline for the bilateral free trade treaty, which is the biggest pending issue between the two countries. To move forward with the FTA, some concessions from our side will be unavoidable. But the ironing-out process won’t likely be easy. U.S. negotiators must first of all come with a more understanding attitude. Eliminating additional tax barriers on agriculture and beef imports could spark angry protests as happened in 2008. Many are still suspicious of U.S. beef imports following the mad cow fiasco. Some have interpreted Washington’s recent decision to defer the transfer of wartime operational control as a bid for favorable terms on the FTA. This should be made clear.

Even if the U.S. Congress ratifies the trade pact, it is not the end of the story. The National Assembly turned into a violent battleground as members of the opposition party armed with hammers and an electric saw fought bitterly with their ruling party counterparts in an effort to railroad the FTA in late 2008.

The next round of talks will pose a conundrum for both sides, which will have to consider complaints by U.S. automobile labor unions and farmers, as well as anti-American groups in Korea. Both countries must use their best judgement and work toward a pact that accounts for their respective political and social circumstances and that reinforces their bilateral alliance. We cannot afford to leave the FTA hanging for another unspecified period.
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