November 23, 2011 12:19
The National Assembly ratified the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement on Tuesday. Grand National Party Vice Chairman Chung Ui-hwa, who was handed the right to convene the vote by National Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae, put the FTA bill to a ballot, and it passed with 151 in favor, seven against and 12 abstentions.
Park had to issue an emergency order and lock down parliament to prevent physical clashes ahead of the vote. Opposition lawmakers vehemently protested the unilateral vote, while opposition Democratic Labor Party lawmaker Kim Sun-dong had to be hauled off by security guards after setting off a tear-gas canister inside the National Assembly chamber.
The FTA will have a significant impact on all walks of life. It should have been passed through an agreement between the ruling and opposition parties, or at least through a vote involving both sides. But the ruling party had to pretend to be holding its own general meeting and then rush to the main chamber to railroad the bill through because the president and the ruling party had failed to go all out to convince the public of the need to ratify the FTA.
The opposition parties also refused to cooperate, not because they believe that the trade pact would seriously harm Korea’s national interests but because they wanted to use it to their advantage in next year’s general and presidential elections. The ineptitude of lawmakers and their inability to communicate with the public were once again confirmed through the handling of the FTA bill.
Now the FTA will take effect in January, six years after the two countries signed it. U.S. lawmakers ratified it last month.
Free trade talks are spreading throughout the Asia Pacific region. Earlier this month, Japan decided to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations being led by the U.S. and nine other nations, including Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. Shortly afterwards, Canada and Mexico announced their intent to join the TPP talks. At the ASEAN Summit last week, six more countries -- Korea, Australia, China, Japan, India and New Zealand -- were included in negotiations over a broad trade pact encompassing the Asian region. Korea, China and Japan agreed separately to pursue FTA talks as soon as possible. But Korea cannot afford to be complacent just because it is ahead of other countries in the FTA race.
With the passage of the FTA, Korea and its 49 million people must prepare for a new kind of race with the world’s largest and most advanced market. Whether that will become a blessing or a curse depends on what the government, businesses and workers do. A first step will be safety nets for those whose livelihood could suffer due to the deal.
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