Korea: failure to institutionalize civil society–state relation on trade

As the discussion above illustrates, civil society actors in Korea attempt to influence trade policies outside the existing institutions of trade policymaking through social mobilizations and various media outlets. The Korean government has been slow in institutionalizing the participation of civil society in the FTA policymaking process. In the initial phase of Korea’s FTA policymaking, the government is required to hold a public hearing prior to the official announcement of launching an FTA. The purpose of the public hearing is for the government to take into account public opinion. These public hearings, however, have come under attack by the anti-neoliberal coalition as lacking transparency. During the public hearing for the KORUS FTA on February 2006, members of the anti-neoliberal coalition stormed the public hearing and halted the hearing process through physical confrontations, accusing that the government had already decided to launch the KORUS FTA regardless of the outcome of the public hearing (Yonhap 2006a). They challenged the legitimacy of the KORUS FTA, alleging that due process was not complied. The government was forced to conduct another round of public hearing on June 2006. The June public hearing, however, was muddled by continued disruptions by the National Front Against KORUS (Choi 2006). Amid chaos and confusion, the National Assembly took charge of the consultation process by requesting the government to report the negotiating process and disclose information. The anti-neoliberal coalition, however, refused to come forward and partake in this process. They deemed participation in the due process as surrendering to the neoliberal trade agenda.

A thorny issue between the government and Korean civil society (mainly anti-neoliberal coalition) was information disclosure. The anti-neoliberal coalition demanded that the government disclose all information related to the on-going trade negotiations. The government rejected the request on the grounds of protecting sensitive information. Civil society criticized this response as hiding and lying (Lee 2006; National Front Against KORUS FTA 2006, 2007). During the KORUS FTA negotiations, the government was forced to disclose sensitive information due to the incessant request by the National Assembly. Some sensitive information disclosed only to the members of the National Assembly leaked to the anti-neoliberal coalition and then to online media. As a result, mistrust ran deep between the government and the anti-neoliberal coalition.

In recent years, efforts to institutionalize civil society participation in trade policymaking has made some progress. Recognizing the necessity of hearing and reflecting the views of various stakeholders, the government and political parties came up with the Trade Treaty Act in 2011. This treaty was the result of a deal between the government and political parties in the run up to the ratification of the KORUS FTA at the Korean National Assembly. The Trade Treaty Act requires the submission of the intention of negotiating trade agreement by the government, public hearing, the filing of comments, an impact analysis of proposed trade agreement, and the establishment of a trade negotiation advisory group (Lee 2012). Through this institutional arrangement, the Trade Treaty Act of 2011 ensured more inclusive stakeholder engagement. If they chose to do so, the anti-neoliberal coalition could intentionally slow the FTA policymaking process within an institutionalized setting and make demands on the government to share information and report to civil society.The government has allocated more time to engage with civil society to get feedback in its agenda setting. Despite the Trade Treaty Act, however, the anti-neoliberal coalition still favors street demonstrations and online protests as their main tools to influence trade policies.

Korean civil society post 2013

In recent years, the anti-neoliberal coalition has been relatively passive in voicing their opposition to FTAs. Especially under the current left-leaning government of President Moon Jae-in, the anti-neoliberal coalition has been remarkably quiescent even during the renegotiation of the KORUS FTA. In 2017, President Donald Trump of the U.S. threatened to terminate the KORUS FTA, which was in its 5th year of implementation. President Trump’s threat to terminate the KORUS FTA represented an opportunity to renegotiate the KORUS FTA according to the preferences of left-leaning President Moon and the anti-neoliberal coalition. During his days as the opposition party leader, President Moon was openly critical of the KORUS FTA as infringing upon the sovereign right of the state. In particular, he demanded the abolishment of the ISDS (Ryu 2012). The anti-neoliberal coalition opposes the ISDS on the ground that it deprives the sovereign state of legitimate public policy. The position of President Moon on the ISDS has reversed. When he was the Chief of Staff for President Roh, he was supportive of the ISDS. Once he became the leader of the opposition party, he became negative of the ISDS.3 Curiously, President Moon did not pursue renegotiations to reflect his or the anti-neoliberal coalition’s interests. In fact, the amended KORUS FTA in the spring of 2018 came at the cost of Korea’s trade interests. Export of Korean pickup trucks to the U.S. was further delayed for another 20 years. This amendment was a major blow to the Korean auto industry and workers. Nonetheless, the news of such outcome met no outcry from the auto-workers, labor unions, and the anti-neoliberal coalition. During the amendment negotiations from the fall of 2017 to the spring of 2018, not a single rally was organized by the anti-neoliberal coalition. Clearly, the political orientation of the government has an important impact on the activities of the anti-neoliberal coalition.

In addition, weakening domestic trade governance in Korea since 2013 is expected to strengthen the voice of protectionist domestic interests in import competing sectors. As discussed in Chapter 3, the dissolution of MOFAT and the creation of MOTIE enabled small- and medium-sized industries in import-competing manufacturing sectors (e.g., automobile parts) to exercise stronger influence over Korea’s FTA negotiation with China. As a result, the Korea-China FTA excludes most agricultural products and a significant number of manufacturing goods, such as automobiles, electronics, steel, and petrochemical products, from tariff reductions. China and Korea agreed that automobiles and auto parts would either be excluded from tariff concessions or subject to long phase-out schedules. The Korea-China FTA illustrates that protectionist domestic interests in import competing sectors are gaining grounds during the FTA policymaking process.

 
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