Workers in both South Korea and the United States have been vocal about their displeasure with KORUS, the free trade agreement signed between the two nations that will soon go into effect. The deal has become a wedge issue in South Korea as an important election cycle begins there. The opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) has vowed to nullify the deal if their party is elected to the majority.
The DUP thinks that KORUS is weighted in America’s corporate interest favor and disrespects Korean sovereignty. American workers think the deal is too similar to the woefully unpopular NAFTA signed in 1994. KORUS could cease to be if the DUP can win come election time, according to Kim Eun-jung of Yonhap News:
Han Myeong-sook, the DUP leader, claimed the free trade deal ratified under the Lee Myung-bak administration favors American interests and its controversial clauses need to be revised before it takes effect.
“As the FTA ratified by the Lee Myung-bak administration damages (South Korea’s) national interest, it should not take effect as it is now,” Han said during a senior party meeting.
As the government is expected to implement (the trade pact) within the month of February, controversial clauses need to be revised before it takes effect. Otherwise, (the DUP) will scrap (the deal) by changing power and the majority in parliament,” Han said.
The DUP is a Center-Left progressive party that is looking to woo Korean liberals. KORUS is widely viewed as a boondoggle entered into by the country’s Grand National Party. The party has become so unpopular, in fact, that they have just changed their name to the “Saenori,” or “New World” Party, for the election homestretch.
The KORUS FTA was originally negotiated between President George Bush and former south Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in 2007. President Obama spoke out against KORUS while campaigning for the White House in 2008 but eventually reversed course.
The DUP wrote a letter to President Obama and Vice President Biden saying they wanted the agreement to be renegotiated, according to the Yonhop News piece:
“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 wrote. “However, the existing provisions of the KORUS FTA are far from meeting such purposes partly because of the flaws” in specific clauses. Those include passages that cover the ISD, protections for small retailers, the status of products from the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial complex, financial safeguards and auto specific safeguards.
“Therefore, we strongly call for your administration to reconsider the KORUS FTA in order to truly strengthen the long-term relationship between our countries,” the letters read. “If our cordial and earnest request is overlooked by your administration, we will have to take all measures possible to freeze the implementation of the KORUS FTA.”
The Korean Peninsula is experiencing a tenuous but exciting moment as the North’s leader, Kim Jong Il, has passed and control of the dictatorship has moved to his son, Kim Jong Un. In the South, aided by the fastest broadband speeds of any country, younger progressives and laborers have organized and demanded change. Writer Christine Ahn looked into this in her piece, “A Korean Spring?” She examines the Labor protests that have developed in South Korea over the past year from which the DUP looks to gain momentum:
Another example of inspiring organizing that has sparked a national discussion on the growing inequality in South Korea came from Busan, a port city in the southeast. There, Kim Jin Suk, the country’s first woman welder, staged a one-woman protest against layoffs by Hanjin Heavy Industry and Construction. In January, Kim climbed up a 35-meter high crane after Hanjin announced plans that it would layoff 400 workers. For 309 days, the 51-year old Kim lived in the cab of the crane, surviving typhoons, monsoons, and heat waves.
After 100 days when Kim’s spirit began to flag, thousands of citizens from around the country hopped on hundreds of “Hope Buses” to show their support of Kim’s protest. Riot police used water cannons and tear gas to stop the first wave of 7,000 bus riders traveling on 185 buses.
On November 10, Kim finally climbed down after the company and the union worked out a temporary agreement to reinstate 94 workers within one year, compensation for dismissed workers, and the withdrawal of lawsuits. Kim’s protest reflected the growing anger among South Korea’s middle and working classes who have felt shafted by the Lee administration’s pro-business policies and the systematic dismantling of the country’s social safety net.
American workers have also chided KORUS loud and clear. Last June the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) published an article, “Why KORUS FTA is Awful for America,” in which they describe how loopholes in the deal’s language could hurt the American worker by allowing for Chinese products to be covered by it:
Most free trade agreements require exported manufactured products to include 51% of their materials from the country of origin. However, the KORUS FTA requires only 35% native materials. South Korea imports manufacturing materials from China. That means a product that is technically made in South Korea could consist of 65% Chinese manufactured goods. In essence, we would be eliminating tariffs for South Korean products (and thereby increasing our already enormous trade deficit) while South Korea subsidizes the supply chain of multi-national corporations in China.
China benefits, multi-nationals benefit and America goes deeper and deeper into debt. Sound familiar?
Sadly, it does. But with DUP candidates surging in key areas, the U.S. might be forced to wash its hands of this dirty deal after all.