No excuse for U.S. bashingAccording to a JoongAng Sunday survey of 16 mayors and governors to find out their opinions on the merits of ratifying the free trade agreement with the United States, just four opposed the deal. Nine supported it, including seven affiliated with the main opposition Democratic Party. Three abstained from answering. The survey outcome has several significant implications.
Local government heads are supposed to best represent the opinion of the public. If a majority of them support the deal, it suggests that the majority of the Korean public does as well. Government officials are also sensitive to the effects of a policy on the interests of the regions they represent. So if many of their supporters had opposed the FTA with the U.S., they could not have feasibly lent it their support.
The Democratic Party figures who oppose the deal are the governors of Gangwon and North Jeolla. They stand against it because of the potential damage it could wreak on their farming and fisheries industries. Gangwon Governor Choi Moon-soon said the FTA could devastate the local fisheries and farming sector, while the governor of North Gyeongsang, a Grand National Party member, refrained from showing support for fear of similarly negative repercussions.
The main opposition party is at risk of losing its credibility, however, if it opposes the deal while ignoring public opinion as it moves forward blinded by its political ambition to seek a coalition with other opposition parties in the upcoming legislative elections. The DP would come across as being stubborn and unreasonable if it were to resist voting on the deal even after President Lee Myung-bak promised to renegotiate the contentious investor-state settlement dispute clause.
Incheon Mayor Song Young-gil and South Chungcheong Governor Ahn Hee-jung defied the official stance of their party. Song said signing the FTA is essential to keep the economy on a positive track and that there is no choice but to do so. Ahn said that discussions about the FTA should be focused on trade policy and the advantages of further opening up the domestic economy rather than using it as a pretext to express their anti-U.S. sentiment.
Given its track record, Korea has no reason to fear a more open economy or greater international competition. The country could never could have progressed to this extent without successfully navigating its way through such issues. What matters most is improving the public’s standard of living and serving the national interest.