Stop dillydallying on the FTA

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Stop dillydallying on the FTA

The U.S. Congress is gearing up to ratify the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, possibly as early as next month to coincide with President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Washington. In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Florida, said the process allowing Congress to consider a free trade agreement with Korea was under way.

U.S. President Barack Obama plans to submit a revised version of the proposed trade deal to Congress next week in the hope that it will review and vote on the treaty before Lee arrives on Oct. 13.

Fortunately, the major stumbling block to ratification of such deals with Korea, Panama and Columbia has been removed. The Senate has approved the Obama administration’s proposal to renew Trade Adjustment Assistance, a costly labor program offering job training and financial benefits to workers who lose their jobs or suffer wage cuts due to increased imports and lowered trade barriers. While the U.S. government is moving ahead to pass the trade deal as agreed, Korea is still dragging its heels. The bill has finally been put to the National Assembly for review, but its prospects remain unclear. It was unilaterally presented by Representative Nam Kyung-pil, chairman of the Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Unification Committee, while the opposition camp remains vehemently opposed. But it would be a great diplomatic embarrassment and economic setback for the country if an FTA with the world’s largest economy flops.

The opposition may be justified in claiming that the revised pact does not offer enough provisions for Korean industry and farmers. But it seems to have got its wires crossed in some cases. For example, it has been arguing that the domestic automobile industry will suffer a setback from the deal, whereas the industry itself has been clamoring for quick ratification, as it believes that lowering trade barriers to the U.S. market will yield greater benefits and boost car exports.

Korea needs to urgently ratify the FTA, as external trade conditions are worsening due to the crisis-hit global economy. If the situation continues to deteriorate, the U.S. could resort to protectionist measures that would put greater pressure on Korea in the form of more trade restrictions. A trade deal could put the two allies on a more equal footing. It should not be used by squabbling lawmakers for political leverage.
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