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FTA talks with Washington need firm leadership

Chosunilbo, Korea

FTA Talks With Washington Need Firm Leadership

27 January 2006

Korea has agreed to slash a screen quota reserving time in the theaters for domestic films to 73 days a year as requested by Washington, thus removing the last hurdle to free trade negotiations with the U.S. The government will reportedly announce the start date for the FTA talks early next month.

Once the FTA is concluded, it will give Korea ready access to the largest market in the world, and from that springboard to Central and South America as well as the Middle East. An even bigger effect will be the qualitative improvements of our economy and industry. American-style international norms in accounting transparency, flexibility in the labor market and copyright protection will flow into the country with the agreement.

Korea hopes to conclude an FTA with the 10-member ASEAN bloc this year. With that and the U.S. deal under its belt, Korea is well placed to become a Northeast Asian free-trade hub linking Asia’s abundant labor force and huge market with the U.S.’ cutting-edge technologies and advanced corporate governance.

But it will be hard slog. The opening of Korea’s agricultural market is among the thorniest issues since the FTA is set to double imports of U.S. beef and to increase those of dairy products six times. Another hot potato will be the need to reduce environmental and labor regulations in the service and investment accords under the deal.

Time is very short. The actual deadline is June next year, but only about 11 months are left until a special mandate from Congress for the U.S. administration to conclude free-trade deals expires. As soon as negotiations get under way, there will be massive protests here from civic organizations, while the negotiation period is awkwardly sandwiched between local and presidential elections in Korea.

That requires strong leadership from the government, especially President Roh Moo-hyun. In this instance, the president cannot sit on his hands as he did during FTA talks with Chile saying it is up to the relevant ministries and agencies to make the necessary adjustments and come up with a satisfactory formula. Unless the chief executive is prepared to face being reviled by his own support base and plays a forceful role in coordinating among the agencies, any benefits from the FTA would dissolve into so much smoke.