Han takes trade post day after quitting envoy job

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Han takes trade post day after quitting envoy job

Former Korean Ambassador to the United States Han Duck-soo was tapped as the new chief of the country’s top trade association a day after his sudden resignation stoked speculation over his decision.

The Korea International Trade Association said yesterday its 20-member executives’ meeting unanimously recommended Han as a replacement for current chief Sakong Il, whose three-year, single term finishes on Wednesday. The final decision of his appointment will be made through a vote at a KITA general meeting also slated for Wednesday.

Han’s sudden change of posts comes amid speculation that the government and the ruling Saenuri Party hope to capitalize on the controversial Korea-U.S FTA issue in repelling a strong challenge from the opposition during the upcoming major elections.

The largest opposition Democratic United Party is facing public backlash over its threat to pull the plug on the treaty if it snatches power away from the ruling party. The Korea-U.S. FTA was signed under the Roh Moo-hyun administration and his Uri Party, a precursor of the DUP. It was partially revised in December 2010 under the Lee Myung-bak administration, passed legislation in both countries late last year and is expected to take effect as early as this month.

As pressure mounted, the DUP chief policy manager, Lee Yong-sup, tried to explain that the party’s main goal is still renegotiating the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, not its immediate scrapping.

Han is deemed to have played a vital role in leading FTA negotiations between Korea and the U.S. when he served as prime minister in the Roh Moo-hyun administration. In recognition for his contributions, President Lee sent Han as the top envoy to Washington in 2009. He is also assessed to have played an important role in finalizing the pact.

KITA chairmanship is another position that can make a significant influence over Korea’s trade-related policies. Around 70,000 Korean companies are registered as KITA members.

“The chairmen’s unanimous support for Han reflects high expectations in the trade industry on his various careers as trade minister, finance minister, prime minister and top envoy to the U.S.,” a KITA official said.

Han’s resignation, which was made when he was in Seoul to participate in next week’s annual gathering of the heads of Korea’s overseas diplomatic posts, was so unexpected that speculation was raised that it may have been related to an unknown problem regarding the Korea-U.S. FTA or that he may have been bidding to run in the April 11 general election. Citing a government official, The JoongAng Ilbo reported that Han had met President Lee early this week.

Han’s successor remains unclear, but Chun Yung-woo, senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and national security, Hyun In-taek, former Unification Minister, and Sakong, another close aide to President Lee, are mentioned as strong candidates.

Meanwhile, an Internet cafe with around 700 business owners as members started an online campaign to block Han’s appointment as the new KITA chairman, calling it a revolving-door appointment.

By Moon Gwang-lip, Song Su-hyun [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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