South Korea’s top trade official yesterday defended a hard-fought compromise with the US on a stalled free-trade agreement (FTA) by rejecting accusations that his government gave up too much to seal the deal.
South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon and US Trade Representative Ron Kirk reached a final agreement on Friday after marathon negotiations near Washington that focused on US demands that South Korea rework the deal to address its big trade surplus in automobiles.
The South Korea-US FTA was originally signed in June 2007, but steps to ratify it stalled amid changes in government in both countries, the global financial crisis and US demands not just on autos, but that South Korea loosen restrictions on US beef imports.
South Korea, which long said it would not budge on the initial deal, ultimately compromised and addressed key US concerns on autos, though says it dug in on beef and got benefits in return such as the US agreeing to a two-year delay in the elimination of South Korean tariffs on pork imports.
“I cannot agree with some views that [the agreement was the result] of our unilateral concession,” Kim told reporters yesterday at a packed news conference, calling it a “win-win” deal.
Kim returned to South Korea on Saturday after participating in final negotiations in the US. Before becoming trade minister he was South Korea’s chief negotiator on the original agreement, which was concluded in April 2007 after 10 months of talks that just barely beat a deadline imposed by the US Congress.
The push to move the deal forward came after talks last month in Seoul between US President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak failed to achieve a breakthrough.
Last week’s effort also took place after North Korea’s deadly artillery barrage on a small South Korean island, though Kim said the attack had no impact on Seoul’s willingness to compromise and that he engaged in the negotiations “completely” from an economic point of view.
Kim said the new agreement is “a by-product that equally reflected each side’s interests,” but admitted a concession was needed in the disputed auto tariff to help clear the passage of the deal in Washington.
“We took the US concerns into account ... considering a certain platform was needed to clear political barriers in the US to push ahead with the [free-trade] deal [because of the] difficult situation of the US auto industry,” he said.
However, opposition party lawmakers in Seoul were left fuming at what they said was a “humiliating” agreement with too many concessions for Washington and too little in return for Seoul.
“We have been hit by the North with cannons and now we’re being hit by the US with the economy,” said Park Jie-won, who is floor leader of the South Korean Democratic Party.
The new agreement was a “humiliating and treacherous deal that prevents South Korea’s access to the US auto market, which should be a key pillar of the FTA,” the party said in a statement.
Park said he would organize a national campaign to oppose the deal and pledged to veto the bill at the South Korean National Assembly.
Jun Byung-hun, another party leader, called the result “tragic,” urging Lee to -apologize to the public and reopen -negotiations.
“We urge him to immediately fire Trade Minister Kim who failed in the negotiations,” he said.