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Becoming a Hot Potato in Political Circles
President Lee Myung-bak criticized leaders of the opposition Democratic United Party for their KORUS FTA U-Turn while the FTA is becoming one of the hottest issues in the upcoming general elections and presidential election
Becoming a Hot Potato in Political Circles
  • By matthew
  • March 9, 2012, 15:37
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On February 22, one day after the Korean government announced that the KORUS FTA would take effect March 15, President Lee Myung-bak criticized opposition leaders, including Democratic United Party (DUP) leader Han Myeong-sook, for their flip-flop stance in regards to trade agreement and Jeju naval base construction issues.

“The free trade deal and naval base construction were actually two policy decisions made by the previous administration,” he said at a press conference, adding, “It’s bad to see that the dissenters were the most avid supporters back then.”

The President even brought up their past remarks. In his reference data, the DUP representative said that the construction of a naval base in Jeju was essential to build an ocean navy and protect the southern seaway (National Assembly stenographic record, February 2007). Former Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan, in the meantime, firmly asserted himself while visiting Jeju Island in July 2007, saying, “It makes absolutely no sense that Jeju should not house the naval station because it is the island of peace.” Unified Progressive Party (UPP) chief Yoo Shi-min stated, “A naval base is in no way incompatible with the peace island concept in that its raison d'etre is to protect the peace of the ocean.

Opposition figures wasted no time in hitting back at the President. Democratic Party spokesman Shin Kyung-min opened fire, saying, “President Lee Myung-bak is attempting to get involved in the upcoming general election, which is just 50 days or so away.”

Representative Han Myeong-sook chimed in on February 23 at an open forum in Seoul hosted by the Korea Broadcasting Journalists Club, “A leader should be able to face the music and change policy direction if the people and situations tell him or her to do so”, she said, adding, “As of now, the KORUS FTA is a one-sided pact and it’s wrong and incomprehensible to bring it into effect as it is.”

She continued, “The US Senate and House of Representatives passed the bill in question in just one day, which signifies that it is something advantageous not to us but the United States. KORUS FTA negotiations began during the Roh Mu-hyun government. It’s right. What I am saying is that it was substantially changed by the incumbent administration and thus should be brought to a halt in order for it to be reshaped from scratch.”

KORUS FTA to Take Effect before General Elections

The KORUS FTA, which is scheduled to come into effect in less than one month, is becoming one of the hottest topics for the upcoming general election in April. Political experts are predicting that the issue will exert considerable influence on election results.

The New Frontier Party (NFP) is appearing to be sitting on the fence in order to weigh gains and losses. As pros and cons are divided sharply surrounding the matter, it is taking some time to feel the pulse of the public. Still, it is planning not to sit back and watch the opposition’s about-turn. NFP spokesperson Hwang Yeong-cheol made a brief comment on February 21, “We’ll double and triple-check the backup plans that came about through ratification-related talks so that the agreement can benefit everyone and contribute to national interests.”

Meanwhile, things are somewhat more complicated for the DUP as it needs to consider the opinions of voters and its potential election partner UPP. The UPP has stated that there will be no alliance unless the KORUS FTA is nullified.

The DUP held a general meeting of assembly members on February 22, demanding renegotiations and the suspension of the agreement. “The announcement of the effective date was made one day before the press conference, and its timing, as we see it, reveals the ruling party’s political intention to capitalize on the FTA in order to get the upper-hand in the election,” it said.

The party’s anti-FTA committee, chaired by senior advisor Jung Dong-young, called an emergency meeting the same day. There, the committee’s members reached the consensus that the economy and other factors have drastically changed from the moment of its conclusion, with the deal now nothing more than a group of poisonous clauses. “I believe that we can regain the trust of people only by making an official apology for this. If the buck stops at the previous government anyway, the only way for us to shake it off is apologize to the public,” he remarked, adding, “We need to employ standard tactics to the renegotiation issue because that will be the way we can hold the current government responsible for this mess.”

As mentioned above, the DUP has been quite firm and stern in its response to the government’s announcement. However, some of its lawmakers are proposing the issue be restricted to some degree as it has the possibility of backfiring. With their representative herself being exposed to criticism for her 180-degree turn, the party leadership is concerned about such an apology and what influence it will have on general election results.

For now, experts are analyzing that the trade agreement issue will act in favor of the ruling party, which has been caught in the crossfire by opposition parties. It is being claimed that the ruling party can take advantage of the issue in order to regroup and unify conservatives. “Towards the end of the term, those in power are more and more vulnerable to the actions of the opposition,” said Yoon Hee-woong, director at the Korea Society Opinion Institute, adding, “Under such circumstances, it seems that the current situation will help the ruling party avoid a landslide defeat in the upcoming election, yet will be unable to turn the tables completely.”

Public Opinion War Kicks Off

The government is considering that the issue of FTA has moved from the negotiation to implementation stage with announcement the effective date. It means that the benefits of the deal have to be demonstrated with visible results. As such, political dispute over the matter is expected to heat up before December 19, the date of the next presidential election.

Tremendous responsibility is on the shoulders of former ambassador to the United States Han Deok-su, who was recently installed as the CEO of the Korea International Trade Association (KITA). In his inauguration speech, he used a figurative expression, “What a rabbit needs is a small plot of grassland, but what a lion needs is a vast open field.” Though the term grassland was replaced by vast open field, it was a favorite sentence of those in favor of the agreement during the Roh Mu-hyun administration.

At his press interview, President Lee Myung-bak mentioned the new CEO as one of the former high-ranking officials who have changed their stance. He also said, “I’m willing to work with officials, ministers and prime ministers of the previous government if they have the same goal as mine and are capable enough.” Inha University economics professor Jeong In-gyo said such a statement was an attempt to emphasize the FTA as a national objective, one not limited to the incumbent government. “The President seems to have used the stark contrast to highlight that the appropriateness and legitimacy of the trade deal comes before anything,” said the professor.

“Gladiator” Kim Jong-hoon, who had been the former trade minister and led KORUS FTA negotiations, left his office and the former ambassador to the US Han Deok-su came back as “a CEO” to manage the issue despite the controversy over diplomatic discourtesy. The latter is considered a professional bureaucratic manager. In this vein, it can be said that the second round of the political battle surrounding the KORUS FTA has raised the curtain regarding which side is able to convince the public.

The essence of the KORUS FTA lies in increasing exports. Exporters are the ones at the forefront. The KITA is the prime supporter for them, and the CEO is the one taking charge of the entire association. He underscored in his inaugural address, “Down the road, we’ll launch various campaigns and programs to correct widespread misunderstandings about the FTA, and this will be an important part of our work during my term.”