The FTA Debate Is Turning Ugly

FTA negotiations will likely magnify “anti-American” sentiments in the short run and unleash a backlash in America.
Balbina Hwang, March 2, 2006

There are really three premises to this post, all of them leading to one conclusion:

  • First, a Korean-American free trade agreement would be a good thing for both countries, but particularly for Korea.
  • Second, despite that being demonstrably the case, the usual suspects see the FTA as an opportunity to ride to power on the shoulders of an America-hating mob.
  • Third, the South Korean governmnent’s position on this lies somewhere in the netherworld between the ambiguous and the bizarre, meaning that it’s rapidly losing control of the debate.
  • The conclusion to which this leads is that the very discussion of a Free Trade Agreement, instead of leading to a more balanced, interdependent, post-alliance Korean-American relationship, could well result in no FTA and an accelerated deterioration in the U.S.-Korean relations.

    The FTA Is Good for Both Countries

    Even as South Korea has sometimes seemed to have lost the capacity for reason in matters of diplomacy and national security, its economic policies had been a relative bastion of reasoned (if sometimes misguided) governance. This much is obvious to any informed Korean observer: an FTA would benefit everyone, but would benefit Korea even more than it would benefit the United States.

    Commenters to a previous post had wondered how the FTA would affect the economy of each country. Rather than speculate, I went to the Web site of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, which has a superb compilation of reports and news articles on the proposed FTA, from both Korean and American perspectives. This report from the U.S. International Trade Commission (big, fat pdf alert) analyzes the likely effect on both economies, and begins to lay out its conclusions on page 130. There, it estimates that an FTA would mean a 0.8% rise in total U.S. imports and exports, a 54% rise in U.S. exports to Korea, and a 21% rise in U.S. imports from Korea. Nifty charts, too!

    Full preferential trade liberalization has minimal impact on U.S. production and a slightly larger impact on Korean production. Overall U.S. GDP is
    expected to increase by 0.2 percent, while Korean production is expected to increase by 0.7 percent as a result of the FTA.

    So clearly, Korea stands to gain much more from this agreement overall than the United States. There are sectors in both countries that lose, of course: Korean agriculture and U.S. textiles will be losers. Both sectors have outlasted their places in the economic development cycles of their host countries. The FTA thus hastens what’s probably, sadly inevitable.

    The Public Discourse

    Recent news reports suggested that the FTA was Roh Moo-Hyun’s last hope for leaving office with a legacy he can describe at his sentencing hearing, if the history of past ex-ROK presidents is an indication. If the FTA is something Roh really wants, however, you have to wonder what his plan was for accomplishing that. The public debate about the FTA should not have begun with bizarre reports that the Korean government had held a public workshop warning its negotiators to beware of CIA microphones disguised as dragonflies, and no, that is not a joke. The unhinged amateurishness of having such a discussion at all — much less publicly — almost calls the will of the South Korean government to sign an FTA into question, to say nothing of its collective mental stability. It benefits none but a few scoundels, unless you count bloggers who are always in need of good material and more traffic.

    With key elections approaching at the end of May, the hyenas pounced with a stunning swiftness . . . even for sleazy Korean politicians. The scavengers are now questioning the deal — which is fine — but the lowest of them are comparing a possible trade agreement to the Japanese colonization of Korea — which isn’t. Comparing U.S. trade negotiators to those who forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans into forced labor and sexual slavery is the sort of gutter incitement worthy of men who can’t remember which end of the alimentary canal ought to do the talking.

    First up was the former presidential secretary for economic affairs, who charged the FTA would be tantamount to “a second Eulsa treaty” after the deal that cost Korea its independence in 1905. Ex-secretary Chung Tae-in also said the plans smacked of a bid by President Roh Moo-hyun to conjure a lasting legacy out of a hat.

    The comparison is repellent both to Americans, whose sons bled and died to keep South Korea free and prosperous, and to the actual victims of Japanese occupation. A Korean government with an ounce of principle would swiftly repudiate it. Chung’s comments even put the far-left Hankyoreh Sinmun in the unfamiliar position of being the the voice of reason, calling bullshit on some of the milder portions of Chung’s rhetoric (he says “pro-American” like it’s a bad thing) and pointing out that Chung himself was negotiating FTA’s just a year ago. A sudden attack of principle? I doubt it. I suspect that the Hani’s real agenda is using an FTA to advance its morally blind enthusiasm for Kaesong, North Korea, where workers labor for pay and under conditions that would outrage the Hani’s writers and union readers if it were happening in any other nation on earth.

    Next, we hear from the obligatory tenured lunatic:

    On Monday, Sangji University President Kim Sung-hoon, a former minister of agriculture and forestry, joined the chorus, telling an online newspaper an FTA with the U.S. would reduce Korea to a 51st state. “The FTA would not only be political suicide but also brand Roh as the most incompetent president in the country’s history and his “˜participatory government’ as the one that sold out the country’s economy and culture,” Kim charged.

    It’s not surprising; the universities are some of Korea’s most ossified, inefficient, and uncompetitive Korean business, and they stand to lose plenty to an FTA, especially if its goes along with visa waiver. We can always run down the alternatives, of course. South Korea could isolate itself the way North Korea has, a decision that’s brought economic ruin even as China carves off colonies in the starving northeastern provinces. Or, it could just let itself drift into the Chinese orbit entirely, but of course, China tends to look with disfavor upon vassal states who try to play “balancer” or dare question the motherland’s historic boundaries. China tends not to care much for unruly strikers, either.

    On March 28, some 270 civic groups including the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement formed a coalition against a free-trade deal with the U.S. and decided to start their national campaign on April 15. They plan to declare the situation an “emergency.

    This means pretty much the entire Korean labor movement, meaning you can expect (1) violence, and (2) a limp government response, meaning (3) that mobs will rule the streets of Seoul wherever and whenever they wish. Today Seoul, tomorrow the world. The virulently anti-American thugs at the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the nation’s largest labor group and proud new owner of the Korean Government Employees’ Union, even announced that it would launch a cyber attack against the White House and the Pentagon to protest the “Americanization” of Korea.

    Who haven’t we heard from yet? The Korean Teachers’ Union, which infamously celebrated 9/11 in an infamous video for Busan schoolkids before the last APEC summit. I can hardly wait.

    In an election year in which Roh Moo Hyun has largely lost control of his own party, it may not have been an opportune moment to lay fresh meat before the snarling factions, each eager to define themselves as being the most radical, anti-Capitalist, and anti-American. Roh will have to demonstrate that he can engage and defeat these demagogues in a public debate, or quietly set the issue aside until more mature leadership can.