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FTA Talks: 424 Days of Tension and Controversy

Posted April. 02, 2007 08:05,   


The Korea-U.S. free trade negotiations have been plagued with tension and controversy ever since Minister for Trade Kim Hyun Chong and former U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman of the Office of the United States Trade Representative started official free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations last February 3.

There have been eight official negotiations. The first one was on June 5 last year. During the ten months that ensued, trade representatives met in Washington, Seoul, Seattle, and Jeju to talk things out.

The deadline for the talks was initially set for 7:00 p.m. March 31. The chasm between the two countries over major issues such as beef, automobiles, and textiles could not be bridged, however. The two parties extended the deadline to 1:00 a.m., April 2, but the meeting ended without an agreement.

Tension until the very last moment-

The two countries made many concessions on less sensitive issues. They did not back down an inch on major issues, however.

The two countries embarked on ministerial talks on March 26, without much progress during the eighth negotiation round in Seoul, which took place from March 8 to 12. The ministerial talks ran into a brick wall when the U.S. demanded that Korea import beef with bones.

The talks seemed to gain new life when President George W. Bush called President Roh Moo-hyun, who was touring the Middle East. The two presidents voiced their political will to muster an agreement on March 29.

Upon returning, President Roh was briefed by Kwon O-kyu, the minister of finance and economy, Hyun-chong Kim, the minister for trade and reassessed his options.

The talks looked to be doomed as consensus on major issues failed to form and the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the power granted by the U.S. congress to the administration to sign a free trade agreement, expired as of 7:00 a.m. March 31.

Kim Jong-hoon, the chief negotiator for the FTA, announced at 7:40 a.m., that the deadline had been extended to 1:00 a.m. April 2. The talks on April 1 still led nowhere, however.

Destined to fail from the beginning?-

It was expected to be a tough negotiation from the beginning.

This was not the first time attempts to form an economic agreement failed to materialize. During the Kim Dae Jung presidency, Korea and the U.S. started talks to sign a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) in June 1998. The BIT was one type of free agreement, though much more limited in scope than an FTA. The talks broke down over the issue of screen quotas (the minimum number of days movie theaters have to play Korean movies by law) before collapsing in May 2000.

Until last year, few thought a FTA between Korea and the U.S. could be possible after this incident.

Changes were detected at the summit meeting between President Roh and President Bush that took place during the 13th Summit Meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation held in November 2005. The two countries released a joint declaration that read that the Korea and the U.S. would strengthen economic ties.

During his New Year’s speech on January 18, President Roh announced that the FTA with the U.S. should be signed for the sake of the Korean economy, and that he would launch talks to start the process as soon as possible.

The government moved quickly to halve the screen quota from 146 days to 74. It also announced that it would start importing U.S. beef that contained no bones. The government officially announced the beginning of FTA negotiations on February 3, 2006.

Moviemakers and farmers resisted very fiercely against the Korea-U.S. FTA, and the public hearing ahead of the beginning of the FTA talks were stalled.

The long road leading nowhere-

The negotiation process was fraught with troubles as expected. Even during the first round of talks, the two nations failed to draft consolidated texts on issues such as agriculture and textiles. The talks often ended with one side bolting for the door in the middle of talks.

To make things even worse, a document Korean trade representatives submitted to the FTA Special Committee of the National Assembly describing the negotiating strategy was leaked to the press.

During the negotiations, violent protests against the FTA sprouted up in Korea. Toward the last stages of the FTA negotiations, members in and out of the ruling party, including assemblymen Kim Geun-tae and Chun Jung-bae, held hunger strikes.

The U.S. Congress also pressured the Bush administration to be tougher on issues like beef and automobiles.

The two nations, knowing very well the political burden failure could bring, postponed the deadline and negotiated until the very last minute.

bae2150@donga.com sanjuck@donga.com