Wednesday, November 23, 2011

(Mostly) free (trade) at last!
(Mostly) free (trade) at last!

Well, the way has been cleared for me to vote for President Obama in the 2012 election. Back in 2008, I withheld my vote for him (even though I preferred him over John McCain, who I wish had been the GOP nominee back in 2000) because of how he scapegoated South Korea (and Japan) for part of America's economic woes.

I even vowed that I would end my Democratic Party membership (I'm an Orange Dog Democrat — see sidebar) if Obama and/or any other Democrats were responsible for the Korea-US free-trade agreement (KORUS FTA) failing to be ratified.

He dragged his feet at first, but Obama eventually decided to push the KORUS FTA, but only after insisting on changes (which made everything topsy-turvy and cognitively dissonant for those whose world view was one where it is always the Koreans who can't be trusted to stick to an agreement and it's always the Americans whose word is oak). The SoKos and the Americans finally agreed, and it went to the respective national legislatures. The Republicans, though, were determined to force through less deserving FTAs with Colombia and Panama on the coattails of the FTA with Korea, a move that nearly torpedoed the KORUS FTA.

But it finally passed the US Congress. And then it was the ROK National Assembly's turn to approve it. Numbers-wise, it was a sure thing, but some South Korean parties don't yet understand that democracy means accepting things you don't like when they get passed through a fair and honest vote.

With the "progressives" (a mixture of politicos who genuinely believe the FTA will be bad for Korea and chinboistas who get their marching orders from Pyongyang) threatening to pull out all the stops, things promised to get very ugly before the FTA eventually passed.

But today it all got rammed through, and the FTA has been ratified. However, this is an example of sausage-making that is a downright national embarrassment. From the Marmot's Hole:
The widely expected date of showdown was 24th of this month, when the regular session of the National Assembly was scheduled. (Frankly, I was expecting that the FTA would pass on the 24th as well.) But GNP leadership secretly decided to hold the vote on Nov. 22, at 4 p.m., apparently because GNP received intel that DLP would attempt to occupy the main chamber at the end of the day on the 22nd. Even within GNP, only a select few knew about the d-day.

GNP held an Assemblymen meeting at 2 p.m. regarding the proposed budget, which ended around 3 p.m. Toward the end of the meeting, GNP leadership told its Assemblymen that they would be passing the FTA today. They moved into the main chamber, at which point the vice chairman of the Assembly Jeong Eui-Hwa (to whom chairman Park Hee-Tae delegated his authority while Park was out of town) called for a closed session — which means no one other than Assemblymen (and not journalists, staffers or anyone else) were allowed into the building. There would be no transcript of the proceedings either. The metal gates to the National Assembly building were shuttered, and the police surrounded the building.

Sohn Hak-Gyu, who was notified of the meeting shortly after 3 p.m., arrived at the main chamber around 3:20 p.m., along with 20 Assemblymen from DP, DLP and other minor progressive parties. By 3:50 p.m., there was a quorum of GNP Assemblymen, and the Assembly session began. At this point, DLP’s Kim Seon-Dong made history by detonating a tear gas canister in front of the chairman’s seat. (Photo here.) But after the commotion settled down, the Assembly ratified the FTA and passed the accompanying bills at 4:29 p.m., by the vote of 151 to 7, with 12 abstaining. (There are 299 Assemblymembers.) The abstaining Assemblymen were mostly the GNP members who called for a negotiation with the progressives. No progressive Assemblyman participated in the voting. The entire operation lasted approximately 80 minutes.
They ended up passing the FTA, 151 to 7, with twelve members abstaining. Those 151 are a simple majority of the 299 members of the National Assembly, but it's disturbing that it was handled in such a ham-fisted and heavy-handed way (that's the second time I've gotten to say that today). It stinks of the authoritarianism remarked by Ma Kwangsoo and other critics. A lockout and blackout of media coverage does not inspire confidence or transparency.

But even more disturbing was the wild, wild west tactics of the not-so-loyal opposition. When I said they were ready to pull out all the stops, I meant that they were ready to pull the pin out of a tear gas grenade.

From the New York Times:
Lawmakers of the governing Grand National Party caught the opposition by surprise by calling a snap plenary session. Opposition legislators rushed in but were too late to prevent their rivals from putting the bill to a vote.

In a desperate attempt, one opposition lawmaker detonated a tear gas canister, throwing the National Assembly chamber into chaos. A scuffle erupted, but members of the governing party outnumbered their foes and, while sneezing and wiping tears, passed the deal in a vote of 151 to 7. In the 299-seat National Assembly, 170 members showed up for the vote Tuesday, most of them governing party lawmakers. The opposition members either voted against the bill or abstained.

Glass doors were shattered as legislative aides from the opposition parties tried to barge in, and security guards formed a human barricade.
Un-frickin'-believable. I'd hoped we'd shed that image of Tear Gas City back in the 1990s, but here we have Kim Sŏndong somehow sneaking in such a device and detonating it right in the seat of national power. Really, how utterly lax is security that that kind of thing can happen?!

Were it not for UC Davis campus police spray-painting members of the student body with tear gas just a few days ago, Assemblyman Kim's bonehead move may have left an indelible mark in global news media. Instead, he may be about as memorable as the poo flingers of Kwangju. (They're sorta memorable, but mostly amongst those who follow Korean politics and social issues; the tear gas thing, however, is a much more enduring image, owing to its heavy use during the 1980s and 1990s. If you've never been exposed to it, no words describe its nasty, debilitating effects.)

So, in conclusion, the FTA passed. President Lee is vowing to look into concerns of the opposition (particularly in the agricultural sector), and with any free-trade deal, we must look closely at the results to make sure people on both sides are getting a fair shake and real benefit. There will be some losers in all this, and their respective governments need to make sure they get the help they need, including training and what-not to transition to other jobs.

I'm glad this is all over. It has dragged on for far too long (the FTA was originally signed by former US President George W. Bush and leftist former ROK President Roh Moohyun — with support from his progressives!) and was always the 227-kilogram gorilla in the room, a hurdle that needed to be jumped successfully in order for ROK-US relations to keep growing stronger and stronger. Now we're there, so let's make the most of it.

UPDATE (following day):
The politicians on both sides have apologized for this whole mess, offering deep bows and mian culpas (see how I did that?).

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