[Viewpoint] Weaving a web around the FTA

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[Viewpoint] Weaving a web around the FTA

On the Internet and Twitter, critics are busy retweeting or posting their opposition to the Korea-U.S. FTA, claiming that the trade deal with the United States would represent “wedlock with a padlock” and that its “12 toxic provisions” would have disastrous effects on the local economy.

But the government and ruling Grand National Party are not trying to lay the criticisms to rest by refuting them head-on; rather, they are choosing to belittle them as “strange rumors.”

But they should have learned a lesson from last month’s failed bid to win the Seoul mayoral election, as well as from similar failures in the elections for Gangwon governor and Bundang District representative in Gyeonggi in April.

The influence of social networking services like Twitter in the electoral process is growing fast. If the government and ruling party fail to stop the spread of ideas such as the aforementioned slogans, they are highly likely to come undone again in next year’s legislative and presidential elections.

In a recent radio interview, Chang Ha-joon, an economics professor at Cambridge University and the author of “Bad Samaritans,” claimed that a free trade agreement between countries of similar economic strength would benefit both because they would open up both parties’ access to larger markets.

An FTA between two unbalanced economies, on the other hand, would hurt the weaker partner in the long run, he argued. Chang said the Korus FTA should be dropped as it has already caused significant internal conflict in Korea and bodes ill for the economy.

Meanwhile, a KBS documentary called “Mexico: 12 Years after NAFTA” has again caught people’s attention by showing how poorly Mexico has fared since it signed a North American free trade agreement.

The program, which was first broadcast in June 2006, concluded that “Mexico became a hopeless country because the Nafta turned out to be a shackle that could not be thrown off.”

The root of evil according to the “12 toxic provisions of the Korus FTA” campaign is unequivocally the clause concerning investor-state dispute settlements (ISD). This includes such complicated issues as “the ratchet clause,” which makes it impossible to reverse the level of market opening, and “the necessity test,” which holds the government responsible for providing proof in the face of allegations against it.

While these are quite detailed and complicated issues, Web users have provided a service by neatly summarizing them in the form of 12 power-point slides that have been doing the rounds on Twitter and other networking sites recently.

Twitter messages are short, and followers tend to blindly accept the opinion of the person they are following. Once a message is posted by someone with a large number of followers, it creates a ripple effect. Writer Lee Oe-su, for example, has one million followers, while another popular writer, Kong Ji-young, has over 200,000. It is said that they helped Park Won-soon win the mayoral election in the capital last month.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade runs a Web site to provide information on how the trade deal is progressing.

But it contains no material effectively refuting the allegation that the trade deal with the United States would put Korea in some form of a trade-related straightjacket, or that the 12 controversial provisions can be seen in another, more positive light. There is one document titled “Investor-State Dispute, a Fair Global Standard,” but the 56-page PDF file is far from SNS-friendly. Few people would bother to go through it to find the government’s position on this matter.

Testament to the power of social networking sites is the case of a university student who posted a questionnaire on his Facebook page recently in hope of getting replies from half of his 200 contacts, but who ended up being inundated with 240,000 responses. He fulfilled his target within 24 hours, then was witness to a chain reaction beyond his wildest expectations as the number of replies rose to 20,000 on the third day and 100,000 on day four.

Sooner or later, the ruling party will railroad the ratification bill through the National Assembly. After that, they will pay no attention to the criticisms and suspicions raised by the opposition and the bill’s critics.

If they fail to properly address these complaints and fears, however, the rate of support for the trade deal, which is around 60 percent, will decrease quickly.

The government and ruling party should stop the spread of “goedam,” or “mysterious rumors,” by providing rebuttals on an issue-by-issue basis.

*The writer is a visiting professor of communications at Sejong University.

by Park Sung-soo
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