South Korean president Lee Myung-bak’s visits to Washington, we have learned through hard experience, may not always have the same positive effects in South Korea that they have had in the United States. Lee’s first visit to Washington in the spring of 2008 resulted in a strong endorsement of the alliance, but it also resulted in a backlash over opening of the Korean beef market that resulted in weeks of public protests and gridlock in Seoul.
President Lee’s state visit to Washington two weeks ago catalyzed Congressional ratification of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS-FTA), but it has coincided with a Seoul mayoral bi-election won by independent opposition candidate Park Won-soon over ruling party candidate Na Kyung-won in a campaign that has marked the unofficial opening of a year-long presidential election campaign. This has complicated calculations regarding how and whether South Korea’s National Assembly will be able to ratify the KORUS-FTA as the last step required for the agreement to go into effect.
This is a particularly ironic circumstance given that the current opposition was the ruling party when KORUS was originally negotiated under the leadership of then-president Roh Moo-hyun. The opposition party has already cried foul at commercials released last week using footage of Roh endorsing the deal, arguing that subsequent revisions negotiated in December 2010 resulted in unforgivable concessions that Roh would never have made. This argument exploits the political risk that both the Obama and Lee administrations took late last year by undertaking additional negotiations necessary to secure U.S. Congressional support for the agreement.
However, the Korea-EU FTA, which was modeled on KORUS and contains many of the same provisions, was ratified at the National Assembly earlier this year.
The political risks of delaying KORUS ratification were evident for all to see from early this year, but the U.S. Congressional debt ceiling debate of last summer pushed Congressional consideration of the FTAs into the fall, while the unanticipated resignation of Seoul mayor Oh Sei-hoon over a referendum regarding whether or not Seoul’s elementary school students should receive a universal free lunch advanced the South Korean political calendar in such a way that South Korea’s election season has begun in the fall of 2011 rather than with National Assembly elections scheduled for spring of 2012.
The result of the mayoral election gives the opposition stronger incentive to dig in their heels and oppose consideration of KORUS in order to bait the ruling party into forcing through FTA legislation unilaterally, an unpopular action that will feed perceptions that the ruling party is out of touch with popular sentiment. Further politicization of KORUS ratification itself appears unlikely to benefit the opposition, if for no other reason than that the issue is not central to the concerns expressed by voters in the mayoral poll.
The Chosun Ilbo published polling data showing that levels of generational anxiety about future issues (20s-jobs, 30s-housing, 40s-retirement) tracked closely with votes for independent opposition candidate Park Won-soon, suggesting that the election result was influenced strongly by negative judgments that President Lee had not kept his promises and was not sorry about his poor performance. Public opinion polling by the East Asia Institute on the KORUS-FTA has shown consistent South Korean public support for KORUS-FTA ratification over the past five years. This data suggests that, as in the United States, the salient public concerns in South Korea are focused primarily on protection against downside effects rather than an absence of support for the FTA itself.
U.S. supporters of the U.S.-ROK alliance collectively breathed a sigh of relief that the U.S. Congress avoided doing gratuitous damage to the strong U.S.-ROK relationship by finally ratifying the KORUS-FTA; now it is time to see if the South Korean National Assembly can do the same.