Neoliberal coalition

The neoliberal coalition in Korea, however, did not emerge as quickly. Korean big business—for example exporters of automobile, consumer electronics, ICT (information and communications technology; including semiconductors and display), petrochemical, and shipbuilding—were slow to mobilize to express their interests in securing FTAs. Their lobbying organization, such as the Federation of Korean Industries and the Korea International Trade Association, were rather passive in pushing forward the commercial interests of their members against the cohesive anti-neoliberal coalition (Choi 2006). The neoliberal coalition emerged several years after the establishment of the anti-neoliberal coalition, only when the Korean government announced its intention to negotiate an FTA with the U.S. in 2006.

The neoliberal coalition was slow to form for a number of reasons. First, in the case of Korea, the economic benefits from Korea’s earlier FTAs were not strong enough to justify lobbying efforts by the so-called winners of the FTAs (i.e., big businesses in export-competing industries). For example, when Korea’s FTA negotiations started with Chile, the latter accounted for only 0.3 percent of the Korean export in 1999. Singapore accounted for a slightly larger share of Korean exports at 2.2 percent in 2004, which was the starting year for the Korea-Singapore FTA negotiations. Moreover, Singapore did not impose any tariffs on Korea’s main export items such as semiconductors and mobile communications devices, due to the WTO agreement. In other words, Korean businesses were already gaining favorable access for their major exported products to Singapore. As a result, the emergence of the neoliberal coalition was delayed until the economic benefits from a particular FTA became large enough to compensate for the costs of collective action. On the other hand, the costs of FTAs were more specific and concentrated on a few easily identifiable sectors such as agriculture. Hence, the anti-neoliberal coalition was quicker to mobilize against Korea’s FTAs.

In addition to the lack of economic benefits, political circumstances contributed to the reluctance of big businesses to mobilize in favor of FTAs. When Korea attempted to negotiate its first FTA with Chile, the ruling government under President Kim Dae-jung was extremely critical of big business. President Kim openly declared that corrupted big business should be dismantled (Lim 1999). Even during Korea’s FTA negotiation with Chile and the Bilateral Investment Treaty negotiation with the U.S., President Kim did not throw his weight to the Korean trade negotiators when negotiations faced fierce domestic resistance. Under this political climate, Korean big businesses were extremely reluctant to voice its advocacy for the Korea-Chile FTA and the Bilateral Investment Treaty.They were afraid of provoking the administration.

Korean civil society and the KORUS FTA

The KORUS FTA negotiations, however, changed the incentives of big businesses in export competing industries. The KORUS FTA represented the biggest FTA Korea had ever negotiated. The U.S. was the single largest economy in the world. For Korean exporters of automobile, consumer electronics, semiconductor, steel, and petrochemical, securing a stable and preferential market access to the U.S. ahead of their competitors in Japan, China, and Germany, would significantly enhance Korea’s trade preemption effect (Choi 2006). Big businesses had strong incentives to mobilize in support of the KORUS FTA. Moreover, given the positive government attitude toward the KORUS FTA under President Roh Moo-hyun’s administration (2003—2007), big businesses faced more favorable political environment.

With the initiation of the KORUS FTA negotiations, big businesses mobilized through the Federation of Korean Industries and the Korea International Trade Association in order to counter the anti-neoliberal coalition. Right-wing NGOs, which advocated free market principles, liberal democracy, and the rule of law, joined the coalition.The Citizens United for Better Society and the New Right Union were the most active NGOs in support of FTAs. In particular, the leaders of the Citizens United for Better Society were mostly academics and mainly economists. They campaigned aggressively to advance the KORUS FTA (Mo 2011). The neoliberal coalition actively engaged in public seminars with intellectuals and business sectors. The Federation of Korean Industries and the Korea International Trade Association ran massive media advertisements to counter claims and accusations by the anti-neoliberal coalition (Choi 2006).The neoliberal coalition argued that the KORUS FTA would benefit the Korean economy and strengthen the Korea-U.S. alliance. In particular, it accused the anti-neoliberal coalition of being led by a group of hardline anti-American ideological activists and claimed that opposing the KORUS FTA would only help North Korea and endanger the Korea-U.S. alliance.

In response to the KORUS FTA negotiations, the anti-neoliberal coalition staged an even more explosive opposition movement. Sectors vulnerable to import competition with the U.S. such as agriculture, fishery, small businesses, pharmaceutical, education, medical service, and film joined the opposition. Left-wing intellectuals also joined the anti-neoliberal coalition. Left-wing media assumed the role of spreading the voice of the anti-neoliberal coalition in its resistance to the KORUS FTA. The anti-neoliberal coalition formed to oppose the KORUS FTA was called the National Front Against KORUS. The anti-neoliberal coalition raised slogans such as, “Korea will fall to the 51st State of the U.S.”; “the price of water will increase 100 times, the price of dental care will explode by 100 times, and the life of ordinary citizen will be miserable”; “the Korean agriculture will cease to survive”; and “the Korean film sector will be conquered by the mighty Hollywood” (Lee 2006; National Front Against KORUS 2006, 2007).

The anti-neoliberal coalition sent their demonstrators to every negotiation venue, whether it was inside or outside of Korea. When negotiations were taking place in Korea, the opposition organized massive demonstrations of thousands of protesters. For example, during the October 2006 negotiations in Jeju, the largest island off the South Sea of Korea, thousands of trade union members from all over the country joined farmers from Jeju. By forming a human chain, they encircled the negotiation venue and even tried to break in.They threw rocks and wielded iron pipes, and the police countered with water cannons, causing several injuries (Yonhap 2006b).The Korean chief negotiator, Kim Jong-hoon, arrived in the airport of Juju and found it impossible to leave the airport by himself due to chaotic confrontations between the demonstrators and the police. Eventually, he had to be lifted out by a helicopter and was taken to the negotiation venue at night.2 In the final round of negotiations, which was held in Seoul on March 2007, a tragic incident occurred. A taxi driver by the name of Huh Se-wook, who was a member of the Taxi Trade Union and the Labor Party, burned himself in front of the negotiation venue. Despite efforts to extinguish the fire, he was fatally wounded (Oh 2007).

Moreover, the National Front Against KORUS dispatched their anti-KORUS demonstrations to the Washington, DC, Seattle, and Montana, which were respectively the venues for the first, third, and fifth round of talks. The number of dispatched demonstrators was small. They rallied in front of the negotiation venues shouting anti-KORUS slogan and marched with candles. What contrasted their demonstrations in the U.S. with those in Korea was the lack of violence.

One important caveat when discussing the motivations driving the anti-neoliberal and pro-neoliberal coalition on FTAs is that the coalitions are not entirely driven by economic rationale. Anti-Americanism underlies the anti-neoliberal coalition whereas pro-Korea-US. alliance sentiment underlies the neoliberal coalition. As mentioned earlier, the anti-neoliberal coalition raised concerns of becoming the “51st state of the U.S.” while the neoliberal coalition emphasized the importance of maintaining and strengthening the Korea-U.S. alliance. One telling example of the extent of anti-neoliberal coalition’s anti-Americanism is that they did not mount any significant opposition to Korea’s FTA with the EU, which was projected to affect the South Korean economy more than the KORUS FTA (Mo 2011).

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