South Korea Gets to Meat of Free Trade Agreement

A year ago, U.S. Trade Rep. Susan Schwab hailed the free trade agreement her office had just negotiated with South Korea as the "most commercially significant free trade agreement the United States has concluded in nearly 20 years." The tech industry couldn't have agreed more and came forth with an orgy of support for the deal.

Let's hope they read the fine print.

"The agreement incorporates provisions of the bipartisan trade agreement reached with Congress on May 10 [2007], and will safeguard workers' right and environmental protections," the USTR stated.

A year later, the South Korean government is showing little sign of respect for its workers' rights while Congress dawdles over the free trade agreement. It seems that ROK President Lee Myung-bak is shutting down protest over his decision to resume importing U.S. beef. In 2003, South Korea banned American beef after a case of mad cow disease was detected in a U.S. herd.

South Koreans took to the streets -- some violently -- to protest U.S. beef imports and, really, who can really blame them for not believing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that all is well with U.S. food inspection? If you have little faith in the quality of U.S. dog food, it stands to reason you might have some questions about the New York strips processed out of U.S. slaughterhouses.

South Korean citizens have a lot of questions about it. Crowds numbering up to 18,000 took to the streets of Seoul last weekend to again demand a renegotiation of the new meat deal. President Lee wants the protests stopped. Now. Think tear gas, clubs and rubber bullets.

In addition to rightly targeting illegal behavior, Lee added he would also stifle legal "rallies that challenge the state's system." Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han promised government investigations and prosecutions of ROK citizens who are organizing product protests of advertisers that place ads in newspapers critical of the protests.

Do Google, Intel, Microsoft and other tech titans really support doing business with this government? Does Congress want to play "Let's make a deal" with a country that cracks heads over citizens' concerns about the quality of the meat they eat? Of course they do. It's a global economy. Nothing could be better for the U.S. IT industry than knocking down trade barriers while giving only lip service to worker rights.

Months ago, a Washington tech lobbyist touting the U.S.-Peruvian free trade agreement told me it was hard to generate much interest in the deal, which also is still awaiting lawmakers' approval. However, she said, Peru had to be dealt with as part of the process leading up to "the big one, what we all want": the South Korean FTA.

I suppose the fine print of the deal was a dead letter before the ink dried.