Mon, Apr 09, 2007 - Page 9 News List

FTA sheds light on troubled US-S Korea alliance

As opposition to the US in South Korea grows, relations could either improve or worsen depending on what happens next

By Richard Halloran

The Free-Trade Agreement (FTA)negotiated by the US and South Korea on April 2 reflects their troubled alliance in which relations could either be revitalized or unravel over the next six months.

The trade agreement, must be approved by the US Congress and South Korea's National Assembly and has already generated substantial opposition in both legislatures. The FTA is intended to lower tariffs and other barriers to a trade that totaled US$78.3 billion last year, with a US$13.3 surplus in Seoul's favor.

South Korean farmers have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the wider opening of their market. Automobile companies fear competition from US makers. The FTA is supposed to ensure that US investors can invest in South Korea on a par with Koreans, which Americans who have dealt with South Korea contend Seoul's bureaucrats will block.

On the US side, the automobile companies and their allies in Congress argue that South Koreans will have an unfair advantage because of easier access to the US market. The pharmaceutical industry says it won little under the agreement. And rice growers got nothing due to the political opposition of South Korean rice farmers.

On a wider scale, political opposition in South Korea seemed greater than that in the US, although South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's approval rating went up a few points after the agreement was signed.

Two members of the National Assembly have gone on a hunger strike. Said Representative Chun Jung-bae: "President Roh apparently doesn't consider the loss of economic sovereignty problematic."

In the same vein, South Korean newspapers have grumbled that US negotiators bullied Seoul's officials and that this was another instance of US domination of South Korea. The Korea Times asserted last week that the FTA left South Korea vulnerable "to attacks from mighty and well-experienced US traders and lawyers."

Add differences between the Bush administration in Washington and Roh's government in Seoul over dealing with the North, the US demanding a hard line while Roh seeks to accommodate the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. Polls show an anti-US streak among younger South Koreans who want reconciliation with Pyongyang.

Further, some South Koreans are seeking stronger relations with China, with whom trade and financial ties have blossomed in recent years. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) is scheduled to arrive in Seoul tomorrow to meet with Roh and other leaders. High on the agenda, says a spokesman, will be "extensive discussions" about "the development of South Korea-China relations."

Perhaps no place does US frustration with Seoul show up so much as among the US military services. Many officers with experience in South Korea assert that the US should reduce its troops in the country or perhaps withdraw all but a token force. One who considers that US forces are almost held hostage in South Korea said plaintively: "Let my people go."

US officers point to running quarrels over issues such as command of US and South Korean forces, sharing the cost of US forces, US access to training areas, moving US forces to new locations, and cleaning up US bases that have been vacated. A particular sticking point: Roh insists on vetoing US deployments out of the country to conflicts elsewhere.

Those US forces are needed elsewhere, notably Iraq and Afghanistan.

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