[Viewpoint] Play with FTA, play with fire
Lawmakers of the opposition Democratic United Party and the United Progressive Party delivered protest letters addressed to U.S. President Barack Obama and congressional leaders to the U.S. Embassy Wednesday, demanding renegotiation of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. It is unusual for opposition lawmakers of a country to demand that the head of state and congressional leaders of another country re-examine a trade treaty signed by the two countries. At best, this kind of stunt will bring international embarrassment to Korea.
The leadership of the Democratic United Party, including Chairwoman Han Myeong-sook, surely knows that much. Nevertheless, they decided to go against international practice and the normal comity of nations. They must have calculated that their move would bring political advantages domestically. A joint press conference was held outside the Sejong Center in central Seoul, during which the letter addressed to Obama was read out. That was followed by a rally and march toward the U.S. Embassy across Gwanghwamun Square and a brief scuffle, which was anticipated, with the police that controlled access to the embassy. It was all covered by the press.
It seems that what the opposition wants is not renegotiation itself, but the sheer exploitation of public opinion that demands cancellation of the Korea-U.S. FTA. The parties said the trade agreement, which was ratified in November after the ruling party blindsided opposition lawmakers with a surprise floor vote, was a humiliating and unpatriotic deal.
During the general election in April, the Democratic United Party will make three major election campaign pledges. It will promise to cancel the Korea-U.S. FTA, revise the way chaebol do business and expand welfare services. The strategy is that the party will consolidate the support of anti-American forces by spearheading the demand for the cancellation of the Korea-U.S. FTA. Then, it hopes to win the support of the so-called 99 percent, aggrieved Koreans struggling financially, by promising to give a boot in the behinds of the chaebol and expand welfare services.
However, the fact that the Korea-U.S. FTA was first initiated by President Roh Moo-hyun and that the leaders of the DUP, including Chairwoman Han, Chung Dong-young, Chung Sye-kyun and Park Jie-won, who served in the Roh government, praised the trade deal at the time, created an obstacle to the plan. It was necessary, therefore, to differentiate Roh Moo-hyun’s Korea-U.S. FTA from that of Lee Myung-bak’s. This is the explanation for the incidents that took place at Gwanghwamun Square on Wednesday.
Another hurdle is that even if the opposition wins a landslide victory in the general election in April, it cannot discard the agreement before it wins the presidential election in December because the right to cancel a treaty with a foreign country is given to the president.
In the letter to Obama, therefore, the opposition wrote, “If we win the December presidential election and if our demands for renegotiations are not met by that time, the Korea-U.S. FTA will be terminated according to Clause 2, Article 24.5 of the agreement.” That article states, “This Agreement shall terminate 180 days after the date either Party notifies the other Party in writing that it wishes to terminate the Agreement.”
If an opposition candidate wins the presidential race in December, will he or she really choose to notify the U.S. government of the termination of the agreement? Once at the helm of our nation, I think the new leader will find it difficult to nullify the trade agreement. If the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement is cancelled, all bilateral relations with the United States will come to a halt at once as there will be no mutual trust. It will not be possible for South Korea to get the United States to cooperate, not only in terms of inter-governmental cooperation regarding North Korean affairs, defense and diplomatic affairs, but also economic cooperation in the fields of finance, trade and energy.
Moreover, there is the danger that people will think the military alliance between the two countries should be broken off too. Furthermore, South Korea will no longer take an active part in international affairs. There is no country in the international community that is willing to deal with a country that is held hostage to domestic politics and thus cancels a trade agreement with another country in this way.
I am confident that the Democratic United Party will not dare to take an action that will almost certainly lead to international isolation. If we do not want to be treated as an outcast in the international community, we should not cancel an international treaty for the mere purpose of winning votes. That letter to President Obama was not sent to the White House but to the homes of all Korean voters.
*The author is a visiting professor of communications at Sejong University.
by Park Sung-soo