U.S.-Korea free trade deal faces political, emotive challenges in Seoul

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SEOUL — Political strife is looming as South Korea’s largest opposition party is demanding a partial renegotiation of a free trade deal approved this week by the U.S. Congress after a long delay.

The Democratic Party’s call for a partial redo of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) comes as a high-profile by-election is taking place and as the National Assembly is preparing to ratify the deal.

“This is the political season,” said Hahm Sung-deuk, a political science professor at Korea University. “We have the Seoul mayoral election on Oct. 26, so the opposition want to make the FTA a critical issue.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved the 1,259-page FTA, which had been signed by Seoul and Washington in 2007. The trade deal had languished in Congress over concerns about its potential effect on particular trading sectors, such as the automotive industry and agriculture.

The FTA would reduce or eliminate a host of trade barriers between the U.S. and South Korea for a wide range of goods and services, and is estimated to add up to $12 billion a year to the U.S.’ $14.7 trillion GDP, according to the U.S International Trade Commission.

Likewise, the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy estimates that the trade deal will increase South Korea’s $1 trillion GDP by 5.7 percent and generate 350,000 new jobs.

“We commend President Obama and President Lee [Myung-bak] for their leadership in finalizing this historic agreement,” said Amy Jackson, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.

“We expect the Korean National Assembly will also recognize the importance of this agreement to the people and businesses of both countries as well as to our alliance and that they will soon ratify the deal.”

Major South Korean beneficiaries will inlcude conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai and LG, which will enjoy tariff cuts that are unavailable to their Japanese and Taiwanese competitors in the U.S. market. In addtion, inflation-hit Korean consumers will have access to cheaper U.S. goods.

But some sectors will be losers.

“Nothing has been done to determine the extent of damages that will be suffered by farmers, fishermen, small merchants, and small and medium enterprises after the agreement takes effect,” the left-leaning Hankyorah newspaper said in an editorial on Friday.

The paper added that the deal contains provisions “prejudicial to constitutional values and judicial sovereignty.”

The Democratic Party and five smaller splinter groups are calling for a renegotiation of some parts of the FTA, which they say heavily favors the U.S. economy over the resource-strapped South Korean economy.

“The FTA, which the ruling party and the government are seeking to push through, is feared to deepen the rifts within our society and worsen polarization,” Democratic Party leader Sohn Hak-Kyu said, calling for greater protection for farmers, Al Jazeera reported.

The party’s floor leader, Kim Jin-Pyo, said party members would use tough tactics, including filibustering and occupying parliament spaces, if the ruling Grand National Party tries to force the bill through the Assembly.

Such actions in the past have led to street protests and fistfights in the Assembly, a unicameral body in which it is nearly impossible to repeal a bill after it has been approved and in which minority politicians have tried to use physical force to halt votes on legislation.

Mr. Hahm, the political science professor, said the FTA “has become an ideological and political interest game.”

Anti-U.S. sentiment lingers among South Korea’s left wing over historical issues, such as the U.S. division of the peninsula in 1945, Korean War atrocities and Washington’s support for the authoritarian Seoul regimes of the 1960s-1980s, as well as over occasional crimes committed by the 27,500 U.S. troops in country.

Many on the left also believe that Seoul’s promising “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea was derailed by the hard-line administration of President George W. Bush.

Yet even if parliamentary clashes and street protests take place, most pundits expect the FTA to be ratified by year’s end.

“I think the majority of Koreans support ratification,” said Mr. Hahm. “It is not only an economic issue, it is a security issue that will help strengthen our alliance, both economic and strategic.”

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