Asia, politics

Could Lunch Derail the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement?

Probably not, but a controversy over mid-day meals makes it a little more complicated for Korea.

Lee and Obama in Detroit.

Earlier this month, the president of South Korea visited the United States. Remember that? They went to a General Motors plant. They had a state dinner featuring Texas rib eye. Harold (of Harold and Kumar) sat across from Barack Obama.

Just before Lee arrived, Congress had ratified the Korean-US Free Trade Agreement, considered the largest such agreement in the US since NAFTA. Korea has not yet approved it and when a Korean reporter asked Obama if he was concerned given the political opposition in Korea, Obama said he had President Lee Myung Bak’s assurances that it would be passed by the National Assembly. (They don’t call Mb “the bulldozer” for nothing.)

The agreement was set in motion by Lee’s predecessor, but Lee has had his eye on this deal for years. His decision to lift South Korea’s ban on American beef (sparked by the discovery of mad cow disease in the US beef supply five years earlier) is believed to have been a strategic move to make the prospects of a trade agreement more appealing to the US. It also led to the great Seoul beef protests of 2008 and the ensuing political and civil rights fallout. You get a sense of the scale of these protests in the photo of candle-carrying demonstrators below (image from WBUR).

Protest at night

But still, the fractured opposition parties, along with labor, environmental, farming, and other groups are steadfastly opposed to the FTA in its current form. And while Lee’s Grand National Party will almost certainly be able to ram the agreement through parliament over their objections, if need be, they might be a little leery of such a move at this moment.

This is where the lunches come in. School lunches, more precisely.

This summer, Seoul was in the grip of a political firestorm over whether or not the city should provide children with free lunches. On one side was the city council and liberal politicians, who had passed a free lunch program to cover every one of the more than 800,000 primary and middle school students in the city. On the other side was Mayor Oh Se Hoon, a member of the conservative Grand National Party (like President Lee), who argued only the neediest students should qualify. It was an issue that played on concerns over class, economics, and social welfare. Mayor Oh tearfully staked his career on the issue, pledging to resign if voters rejected an August referendum to block the larger plan. They rejected it. He resigned.

Seoul contains about a fifth of the entire population of Korea, so running the city is an influential position. Before he was president, Lee was the mayor of Seoul.

The political gamesmanship in the runup to the election centered mainly on three contenders: Na Kyung Won, the Grand National Party and establishment candiate (who would have been Seoul’s first female mayor); Park Won Soon, an independent, liberal candidate who is a civil rights lawyer and community activist; and Ahn Cheol Soo, an MD/PhD physiologist-turned-software tycoon-turned-professor who is basically every Korean parent’s (or aspiring youth’s) dream-vision of professional achievement. Among his 11 books is one titled “My Mother, Who Fostered My Ability.” He would likely have been the leading mayoral candidate and is considered a viable presidential candidate.

But he didn’t run, and instead threw his support behind Park, who then won last Wednesday’s special election. (The main opposition party failed to muster a candidate of its own, suggesting just how fractured and shambolic the non-GNP political spectrum is, and making the Park victory that much more impressive.) The fallout has been interesting. Mayor Oh obviously hurt his chances for higher office due to his miscalculation. Na, the GNP mayoral candidate, had won the endorsement of Park Geun Hye, a politician and daughter of an assassinated president; Na’s loss is viewed as hurting Park’s chances in the 2012 presidential election. The results are viewed as an expression of disapproval of Lee’s current government (Korean presidents only get a single five-year term). The opposition is feeling emboldened. And Ahn’s own status has obviously been boosted even higher for backing the winner. As the JoongAng Daily notes, it has GNP politicians worried:

The Grand National Party’s defeat in the Seoul mayoral by-election has scared the party off from pushing through the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, and its ratification is more imperiled now than ever.

It’s not clear just how imperiled it is (probably not very much). The opposition itself isn’t new; these groups have been unhappy at the prospects for years, though Park’s victory is a reason to feel recharged. The consensus—among the media, at least—is that passing the FTA is going be a real brawl. Not in some metaphorical way. We’re talking fists, furniture, maybe even fire extinguishers and hammers.

The JoongAng explains:

In Korea, the minority in the assembly resorts to physical brawls when the majority party tries to railroad through bills, using violence as a kind of filibuster. But the brawls are unpopular with the public, which blames the majority party for not trying hard enough to compromise with the opposition.

After losing the mayoral by-election this week, GNP lawmakers are much too fearful of losing their seats in next April’s general election to be seen in a brawl over the FTA.

Reporters are positively rubbing their hands in anticipation. As the lede of a Wall Street Journal blog post says, “The Korean-U.S. free trade agreement started with brawls and protests in the streets in 2006. And it now appears certain it will end with brawls and protests in the National Assembly next week.”

So what does Korea’s physical politics look like? A good example comes from 2008, when the GNP worked on FTA details behind closed doors. Closed doors that they then blocked with furniture:

So we’ll see if any viral video comes out of next week’s Korean National Assembly. As for those school lunches, Mayor Park signed free-lunch funding into law on his first day. And President Lee probably never knew that his visit to America coincided with our own National School Lunch Week.

[Bonus: I just found some old video of Seoul’s city council members pushing each other around over school lunches! I’ve embedded it in the next post, along with video of 2009’s notorious (but unrelated) parliamentary media-law brawl.]