By Tong Kim
There were some concerns that the South Korean opposition parties’ recent letter to the American president regarding the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS FTA) might harm the traditional ties between the two countries.
The letter signed by the leaders and 96 national lawmakers of the two main opposition parties advised President Obama that they would terminate the KORUS FTA ``when we gain power in December, if the two governments fail to renegotiate” and address their concerns, including the investor state dispute settlement mechanism (ISD).
Perhaps, overconfidently or imprudently, the opposition conveyed its objection to the agreement to Washington under an early presumption that it would win the presidency for 2013. The letter delivered to the U.S. Embassy was cordial but its message was like a bluff that must have received the attention of the addressees that included the speaker of the House.
President Lee denounced it as ``serious damage to the national prestige as we are not in the past era of dictatorship,” when opposition leaders would appeal to U.S. support for Korean democratization. Park Geun-hye who is the interim leader of the ruling party said, ``We cannot leave the country in the hands of those who promoted the FTA when they were in power and now say they oppose it and insist upon its abrogation.”
The opposition retorted that the agreement negotiated by the Roh administration was better than the current version. With this exchange, the FTA has become an instant campaign issue for the general election to choose representatives to the National Assembly in April.
This episode showed three things: First, President Lee failed to persuade the opposition and the nation to accept the FTA and created a worse problem by railroading the passage of the FTA ratification bill. Second, the opposition may have been determined to oppose it anyway for political gains. Third, there is a need for Washington to share information and views with the Korean opposition leaders. As in the past, it would be helpful if high-level American officials also meet with opposition leaders when they come to Seoul.
The history of the U.S.-ROK alliance shows that the security and economic interests of the two countries did not always neatly agree. U.S. trade negotiators seldom considered the alliance factor for a bilateral trade agreement. When Senator Obama opposed the KORUS FTA on the grounds of a disadvantageous auto deal, he was not seen by South Koreans as anti-Korean or anti-alliance.
Similarly, the opposition members are not instigating the rekindling of anti-American sentiments by rejecting the current version of agreement. However, they are more independent minded from U.S. policy and more conscious of the interest of their country. An actual balance sheet of the FTA for gains and losses will not be available at least until after a few years, long after the elections.
This gives plenty of room to debate the pros and cons of the trade deal during the campaign, because the average voters generally do not know how it would impact their lives, except for farmers who will be affected negatively. It is possible that opposition to the FTA would be portrayed as anti-American and pro-North Korean, although it would not be a determining issue.
This year’s key campaign issue will be the economy ― who can create more jobs for the young people, control prices, provide affordable housing, and bring about a better economic wellbeing in general. Corporate reform is seen as necessary by both major parties, as a means to share the benefits of growth and reverse the trends of polarization. Any welfare programs not supported by sound revenue would do more harm than good in the end. Other issues include education, equal treatment for temporary workers and social fairness.
Despite the controversy over the Lee administration’s record on the North, inter-Korean relations or the nuclear issue are unlikely to become pivotal campaign issues, unless an unexpected, and unlikely, serious security crisis develops on the peninsula.
Recent polls favor the opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) over the Saenuri Party (meaning new world party). Saenuri is the new name for the ruling Grand National Party (GNP), whose public support dropped drastically because of voters’ discontent with the Lee administration and a series of unwelcomed scandals involving members of the GNP and its administration.
The DUP has gained wider support by combining the supporters of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun as well as labor and civil activists. In a phenomenal political event that brought in more than 600,000 voters, including those who voted by cell phone, the DUP elected Han Myung-sook, prime minister during the Roh administration, as its chairwoman,.
After its defeat in the Seoul mayoral by-election and the revelations of serious scandals, the old GNP gave full authority to Park Geun-hye, a former GNP leader, as chairwoman of an Emergency Measures Committee to reform the beleaguered party, candidates for the elections and to recover competitiveness.
Both parties are now in the process of selecting candidates for the general election. The DUP is yet to negotiate unified candidacies with the United Progressive Party (UPP) to increase its chance for victory. Saenuri is deliberately disassociating itself from President Lee, who has become an electoral liability. Park hopes ``candidates who are ready to work for the country’s future will be chosen, instead of those who fight over the past.”
However, it is still premature to predict confidently who will win in one or both elections that will define the future of Korea. What’s your take?
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.