The Korea-US FTA Controversy Provides a Glimpse of the State of South Korean Politics

By Shinji Ryu on February 7, 2012

After being negotiated and signed over four years ago, the South Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement remains at the center of political controversy in Korea. As the advocates of the trade deal look forward to its implementation within the month of February, its detractors are making a final push to prevent it from going into effect. This political fight has dragged on in the past several years, making it one of the most prominent political controversies in the last decade. Upon close examination of the political battle that preceded the ratification of the FTA, one can witness the bitter and shortsighted nature of South Korean politics today.

Though it was signed with the blessing of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and the Bush administration in June of 2007, the FTA languished in the legislatures of both South Korea and the United States until 2011. It was advertised as—and its advocates have stood by this claim through thick and thin—a job creator in both countries involved. When Roh’s term ended in 2008—to be replaced by the conservative current president, Lee Myung-bak—Roh had hoped for the liberal and conservative lawmakers to cooperate in ratifying the FTA. However, during the summer of 2008, concerns about imported US beef contaminated with Mad Cow Disease erupted in South Korea, resulting in massive protests against the FTA, which would lift the restriction on imports of American beef. Much of the public paranoia was due to misinformation, such as the preposterous claim that Americans do not eat their own beef, instead importing Australian beef for human consumption. The opponents of the FTA branded it as an American plot to dump its bad beef on South Korea. President Lee attempted to assuage the public, but the liberal legislators used the hysteria in order to mount a political offensive against the Lee administration. Consequently, the political climate soured tremendously on ratifying the FTA, and it would remain on the legislative back-burner for years. The risk of Mad Cow Disease entering South Korea through American beef may have existed, but it is clear that the threat was exaggerated greatly. For such a histrionic response to have occurred, the public should have waited until the claim of American beef being significantly more dangerous was scientifically established as fact. Nationalism and anti-Americanism provided the public hysteria much tailwind, and those against the FTA did not bother to clarify misconceptions about the issue. As it happens too often in South Korean politics, truth was easily discarded when it did not serve one’s interest.

When the United States Congress ratified the FTA in the fall of 2011, the news greatly strengthened the same efforts in the Korean National Assembly. President Lee Myung-bak and the Grand National Party, the conservative majority in the legislature, supported ratification, while the Democratic Party and other liberal factions were in opposition. Although the ratification had a measure of bipartisan support in the United States, that was not to be the case in Korea. The minority opposition parties refused to participate in voting procedure, as the president and the Grand National Party pushed to settle the matter with a vote in the National Assembly. In turn, the Grand National Party did not act with good faith in forcibly ratifying the trade agreement by opening a legislative session without alerting the opposition parties and conducting the vote without the liberal legislators present. This act, widely excoriated, was possible because the Grand National Party held a large majority of seats and thus could procedurally open a legislative session unilaterally. The liberal lawmakers belatedly stormed the National Assembly, and one even released tear gas in the assembly hall after the ratification bill had been passed. Sadly, in this fight, neither side was in the right. The Grand National Party’s clandestine ratification of the FTA destroyed any good faith the parties had for each other, and an opposition lawmaker’s indefensible decision to inflict possible physical harm on fellow legislators further besmirched the sanctity of democracy that was so difficult to establish in Korea only a generation ago.

Currently, the procedural steps prior to implementation of the free trade agreement have all been completed. However, significant disdain for the FTA still exists in South Korea among the citizens and at the National Assembly. The Democratic United Party, the recently-formed coalition of liberal factions in the National Assembly, still demands a renegotiation of the agreement and has vowed to prevent its implementation. Considering that the liberal legislators had supported the agreement when former President Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal-leaning member of the Democratic Party and the Uri Party, had signed it in 2007, it is likely that the controversy is more a political tiff against the Lee Myung-bak administration and the Grand National Party than an actual disagreement on issues. Too often, the political parties, whether liberal or conservative, have displayed a striking level of disrespect for the legislative procedure in South Korea. In the past, physical tussles, locking out lawmakers from the assembly floor, and other incidents all have occurred in situations similar to the ratification of the FTA. Ideally, all political parties should respect the legislature and its procedure to be gracious in political victories and in defeats. Unfortunately, the National Assembly has been degraded by incidents that flout the instituted procedure and systems, leaving the South Korean government’s prestige in tatters. With regards to the FTA, the Grand National Party should have conducted the vote with the presence of opposing lawmakers, and the liberal legislators should have been willing to participate and to accept the results of the vote.

The efficiency of government depends on the politicians’ willingness to play by the rules and with good decorum befitting the prestige of their offices. In South Korea, the disintegration of trust among the political parties has compromised the government’s efficiency and power. If the solution to this problem was a systemic reform of the rules, it would be easy. However, the South Korean government faces a much more abstract and difficult task: a reform of the political culture itself. How long it manages to procrastinate on this matter of vital importance will go a long way towards determining the future of the South Korean democracy.