Is the Korea-U.S. FTA really unfair for America?

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By Won Jong-il(Participant)

Many Korean proponents of the country’s free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States believe it will boost our economy by spurring consumer demand for imported goods through lower prices and increasing exports to one of the largest markets in the world.

Of course, there are opponents to the FTA, but more than half of Koreans support it not only because of the economic relationship with the United States but also their special military partnership. Many Koreans consider the superpower a good friend who has been protecting the country for more than 60 years from the North’s military threat.

In this critical moment when military tensions between America and the North have heightened to a peak caused by hard-line leaders in both countries, Korean conservatives want more solid bonds with the United States, and President Donald Trump is now taking advantage of this situation.

Currently, the U.S. government has been forcing the Korean government to renegotiate the agreement saying it is unfavorable for American industry. But here’s the inconvenient truth: most Koreans are not well informed about what is written in the agreement. They might think Korea did a good job striking a deal, and that's why our ally wants renegotiation.

On Oct. 13, there was a seminar hosted by the ISC (International Strategy Center) where people examined the actual text of the Korus FTA in English with Lee Hae-young, a professor of International relations at Hanshin University. For two hours, attendees examined the many provisions unfavorable toward Korea.

For example, Korea and the United States agreed that “foreign investors are not hereby accorded greater substantive rights with respect to investment protections than domestic investors under domestic law where, as in the United States.” The phrase “as in the United States” makes the interpretation of this clause more favorable to the United States. It is possible to interpret this as United States law superseding Korean law with respect to investment protection, allowing greater rights for American investors in Korea but not doing the same with Korean investors in the U.S..

Other clauses also restricted Korea's autonomy in welfare, security and environmental protection. In general, the agreement is unfair for Korea.

One might wonder, then, why Trump is dissatisfied with the agreement. When it comes to international relations, the stronger you are, the freer you are. Trump wants the freedom to exercise protectionism for his country and through the free trade agreement, Korea has to agree that the United States is free to protect its national industry and free to force Korea to open up. In other words, Trump is still very hungry.

Professor Lee also proved that the five-year  FTA has not been beneficial for Korea by presenting economic statistics. Our government and mass media have only been telling us the positive side of the agreement. Many people support or oppose the FTA based on the economics, but more important is what’s negotiated and whether both parties have equal political power. If one party does not have equal political power, its people have to make their voice louder instead to rebalance the negotiations and make it fairer or outright reject the negotiations.

But our mass media has not dealt with the issue in detail, leaving people ignorant. I, too, was ignorant until I read the actual agreement. I now know the truth, I cannot be silent anymore.

The critical moment that will make an already unfair agreement even more unequal is just around the corner. I promise to study the issue further and share information with others. When people open their eyes to the truth, we can find a way to overcome this crisis.