Deal’s chief negotiator reflects on rocky road

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Deal’s chief negotiator reflects on rocky road

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Former trade minister Kim Jong-hoon

Reflecting on the long road to ratifying and implementing the Korea-United States FTA, former Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon said yesterday he was relieved to see it finally go ahead after overcoming three major hurdles.

“There were three big difficulties during the long-stalled negotiation process,” Kim told the Korea JoongAng Daily as he looked back on the last six years.

The first involved finding ways past numerous sticking points during a marathon 10-day session of negotiations in April 2007 as the two sides battered out an initial agreement in the first round of negotiations, he said.

The second came during supplementary talks in 2008 to reduce restrictions on U.S. beef imports, which had been banned five years earlier due to a fleeting mad cow disease scare in the U.S.

“The situation became so bad that some people were saying - groundlessly - that people who consume U.S. beef might die from mad cow disease,” Kim said, recalling the scaremongering and protests that occasionally filled the streets of Seoul.

There was a nationwide candlelight vigil against U.S. beef imports and the Korus FTA that summer.

Kim’s third major headache came in late 2010 when the two sides made amendments to the automobile section of the original FTA deal aimed at delaying the removal of tariffs. This stirred a fierce controversy, with critics blasting Seoul for caving to Washington’s demands.

“It has been a long, exhausting journey,” said Kim, who served as the country’s chief negotiator on the deal from 2006.

He stepped down as trade minister last December after playing a vital role in finalizing the deal together with veteran U.S. economist Bark Tae-ho, who succeeded him.

Kim said he was frustrated by the rifts the FTA had caused within the nation’s political circle and especially with the opposition party’s demand that it be scrapped. The Democratic United Party-led coalition is still threatening to kill the pact if it ascends to power in December’s presidential elections.

Opposing it is tantamount to obstructing Korea’s growth, he said. “It’s an anachronism. And it’s retrogressive rather than progressive.”

As for the controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISD) clause, Kim said it is a proven formula that works. Korea included the clause for the first time in a bilateral trade agreement with the United Kingdom in 1976. For the past 35 years, Korea has signed bilateral agreements with 81 countries, and all of them include the clause, Kim said, adding that it was last included in a smaller trade deal with China in 2007. Kim added that opposition party members initially considered the clause a safeguard when they were part of the ruling party.

As Korea continues investing overseas, including in the U.S., local firms have much to gain from ensuring the clause is left in, he said. Incidentally, there have been no ISD-related lawsuits filed yet among the 81 aforementioned trade agreements.

Kim said Korea is one of the countries that has benefited the most from the global trend of ramping up global trade of goods and services and easing barriers.

“It is unfortunate that people won’t listen to us, even though we try to explain all the facts to them,” he lamented.

He singled out rumors that the cost of intestinal surgery on the caecum will skyrocket to 9 million won ($8,010) when the Korus FTA takes effect as being particularly worrisome.

“It is clearly written on page 330 of the agreement that medical services which are covered by the national health insurance are excluded from the deal. But the public just won’t believe it,” Kim said.

The U.S. market is particularly important to Korea because of its wide spectrum of consumers, he said.

“If we don’t do well in there, we can’t do any better anywhere else.”

By Lee Eun-joo, Song Su-hyun [angie@joongang.co.kr]

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