‘New campaign tool to woo voters’
By Park Si-soo
What’s your take on the threat to scrap the country’s free trade agreement with the U.S. (KORUS FTA) by opposition political parties?
As is the case within the political circle, the general public is sharply divided over the matter, with the done deal set to go into effect later this month.
Those opposing the deal claim the KORUS FTA serves American interests and could devastate the lives of ordinary Koreans. They said breaking the deal to prevent any negative impacts was desirable.
In contrast, proponents of the accord criticize lawmakers of the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) and the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) for misleading the public with an “unrealistic” plan, which if materialized would cause irrevocable damage to the Seoul-Washington alliance. They also called the move “self-contradictory,” citing the fact that some lawmakers against the implementation of the agreement were directly involved in negotiating the trade deal with the U.S. under the presidency of the late Roh Moo-hyun.
The dispute surfaced only two months ahead of the April 11 general election, spawning speculation that it is to prompt anti-American sentiment to help the opposition solidify their support base, particularly among liberal-minded citizens.
The Korea Times interviewed randomly-selected citizens on the issue Friday and learned that both sides have their own logic, showing little room for compromise.
It appeared that those critical of the DUP’s move outnumbered supporters, although no survey of citizens on the issue has been conducted.
“It’s very contradictory that those who were once avid supporters of the KORUS FTA have suddenly become strong opponents,” said Lee Hwahn-choon. “I don’t see the opposition party’s real intention to nullify the deal. I see this move as a campaign tool to woo voters with the general election only two months away.”
The 38-year-old office worker said if the opposition parties are serious about scrapping the deal, they should let people know how they will cope with its foreseeable consequences ― devastated ties with the U.S.
“For now, I don’t see any measures to deal with the aftermath,” Lee said.
Kim Bum-joon, another middle-class worker in his early 40s, was also skeptical of the move.
“I absolutely object to the move,” Kim said. “The FTA negotiation with the U.S. started during the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration, when lawmakers opposing it were in power. Their collective opposition is obviously politically motivated to gain additional political leverage over the ruling camp.”
Agora, a main online discussion website, was flooded with messages against the move to scrap the FTA.
“Opposition parties listed 10 clauses they want renegotiated. But nine of them were mutually agreed upon during the Roh administration. How contradictory!” a message read. Many other messages echoed the view.
Han Myeong-sook, DUP chairwoman, called the 10 clauses “toxic,” saying this “humiliating, unpatriotic deal is impoverishing our people” at a Wednesday press conference. Han served as prime minister during the Roh administration.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government reaffirmed Thursday that it remains firmly on track to implement the FTA as early as possible despite a fierce backlash from Korea’s opposition parties.
“We believe that the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement is in the interest of the United States, of the Republic of Korea, and of the relationship between our two countries,” a State Department official told Yonhap News Agency. “The U.S.-Korea free trade agreement represents a historic opportunity to increase exports, support job creation, bolster both our economies, and strengthen a vital strategic alliance in the Asia-Pacific.”
The comments were the first official response to letters by the country’s two opposition parties, the DUP and UPP, to President Barack Obama requesting a renegotiation of the FTA, which they now claim is unfair to Seoul.
Earlier this week, the DUP announced that it would seek the nullification of the KORUS FTA if it wins the April general election and the December presidential contest.
Following a joint protest rally with a minor progressive party, the DUP delivered three letters signed by 96 lawmakers from both parties to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul for President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives.
“We would support a trade deal between our countries that would genuinely help to raise the living standards of the people, promote economic growth and stability, create new employment opportunities, and improve the general welfare,” the letters said. “However, the existing provisions of the KORUS FTA are far from meeting such purposes partly because of flaws in specific clauses.”
Recent voter surveys showed the DUP beating the ruling Saenuri Party in the April election. It is also seeking to win the presidency currently held by the conservatives in the December election.