The only Korean-American to have served in U.S. Congress expects the KORUS FTA to be ratified in the U.S. soon, possibly within the spring.
“I think it’s going to be ratified easily, perhaps by May,” Jay Kim told The Korea Herald last week. “There’s no problem here, (but) I’m concerned about Korea.”
Kim, born Kim Chang-jun in Seoul in 1939, emigrated to the U.S. in 1961, where he studied civil engineering and later founded JAYKIM Engineers, a firm that specializes in designing highways and water reclamation projects.
After serving as city councilman and then mayor of the Los Angeles suburb Diamond Bar, Kim was elected to Congress as a Republican in 1992 in California’s 41st Congressional district, a seat he held until 1999.
These days he remains active as a lecturer and writer, also serving as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum, an organization based in the U.S. capital that seeks to strengthen the traditional U.S.-South Korea alliance.
He has used all of these roles to promote the deal, first agreed upon in June 2007 and then amended in December 2010. Under the renegotiated deal, both countries are given five years to eliminate their tariffs on the other nation’s automobile imports, a move which won support from the Ford Motor Co. and United Autoworkers Union in the U.S., both of whom had opposed the deal in its original form.
However, the renegotiation was lambasted by opposition forces and activists in Korea, who felt their government had made too many concessions.
“I think the negotiation was a win-win situation,” Kim said. “Some people claim Korea gave up too much, but I don’t agree.”
Korea, however, did block additional liberalization of its beef markets, an issue that prompted widespread protests here in 2008 over fears of mad cow disease.
In the long term, resisting increased trade with the U.S. harms Korea’s economy, said Kim. Having spoken to opponents of the deal here, he said he has not received a satisfactory explanation for their opposition.
“I believe it’s anti-Americanism,” he said.
“I believe it’s going to pass (Korea’s National Assembly) but it’s going to be ugly,” he said. Given the confrontational, often violent behavior seen when dealing with contentious bills here, Kim said he would not be surprised if the process turns into a “physical fight” in Korea’s legislature.
In the U.S., conditions appear riper for the passage of the agreement than they did when it was signed nearly four years ago. At the time, U.S. President George W. Bush, a Republican whose administration had inked the deal, had been dealt a defeat in midterm Congressional elections the previous fall, handing control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives to Democrats.
As the Democrats have traditionally been less friendly to free trade deals and had little desire to help Bush, the deal languished in the years that followed.
Now with Barack Obama, a Democrat, currently in the White House and control over the legislature divided, the KORUS FTA’s fortunes may have changed. The Republicans have recaptured the House, making Kim optimistic of its chances there.
“Republicans powerfully support open markets,” he said.
Though Democrats have a 53-47 advantage in the Senate, the White House may exert pressure to ensure its passage, knowing that its opportunities for legislative victories have diminished due to Republican control over the House.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), the influential head of the Senate Finance Committee, was disappointed when the renegotiated agreement failed to open up Korea’s beef markets, and has indicated he will not support it.
Kim said that Baucus should support the bill in the hopes of it leading to more trade in the future, rather than opposing it in its entirety now.
“I think that’s very narrow-minded,” he said. “A couple of years from now you try and open it up again, you don’t try to kill the whole bill.”
The deal, if ratified, will be the biggest for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada came into effect in 1994. It will also be their first with a major Asian economy.
It will be South Korea’s second-largest free trade agreement, behind only the agreement it signed with the European Union in the fall of 2009, which is also awaiting ratification.
By Rob York (firstname.lastname@example.org)