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South Korea Not Ready for Pacific Trade Partnership

South Korea Not Ready for Pacific Trade Partnership

The U.S. Congress is about to have a drag out fight on the idea of granting President Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or “fast track authority”).  This will allow the President to craft trade agreements then force a Congressional vote under expedited procedures and without amendments.  This is not going to be easy.

The New York Times reports “key congressional leaders agreed on Thursday on legislation to give President Obama special authority to finish negotiating one of the world’s largest trade accords, opening a rare battle that aligns the president with Republicans against a broad coalition of Democrats.”  Fast track authority would allow a bill to be introduced, with no opportunity to amend it, then it would get special protections virtually assuring passage.

This will allow the Obama Administration to pursue a Pacific trade deal (“Trans-Pacific Partnership” or “TPP”).  The Washington Post reports that South Korea wants to be part of the deal.

Not so fast.

Free trade is a good policy and countries should pursue unencumbered trade between nations.  However, all parties should reject signing a trade agreement that might allow a country with some serious political problems to get wedged into this deal.  They should pay special attention to a nation with a deteriorating human rights record like South Korea.

South Korea is a nation has allied with China the Wall Street Journal reports.  South Korea’s slow slide toward friendly relations with China in recent years should be an area of concern for those focused national security.  A trade agreement including South Korea might be create new national security challenges.

If you look at South Korea’s recent record on immigration, human rights and sex trafficking you would have to put the breaks on any deal that allows them easy access until they change.  Recent deterioration of diplomatic relations with the U.S. is also problematic, and something that have the left and right concerned.

 A United Nations special investigation into Republic of Korea (South Korea) human rights abuses provides a view of conditions suffered by a variety of groups, from migrant laborers and immigrant families from the Philippines, Vietnam, China and elsewhere in South Asia, to Korean women and children.

Hundreds have recently protested this poor treatment, while U.N. Special Rapporteur Mutuma Ruteere found in October of 2014 what he deemed serious problems in South Korea that range from discriminatory exploitation and maltreatment to racist, verbal abuse.  I am no fan of the United Nations, but others confirm this report.

An organization dedicated to eliminating human trafficking (humantrafficking.org) reports that “the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) is a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking of men and women subjected to forced prostitution and forced labor.”  This situation needs to be addressed before preferential trade benefits are granted to South Korea.

South Korea also has a racism problem and it is targeted mostly at its Asian neighbors (China, Vietnam, Philippines, Japan) and foreign nationals.  There has long been an ingrained sense of racism directed at countries deemed inferior to South Korea.

Some of the most shocking data on the issue of racism was uncovered in a recent study by the Hyundai Research Institute.   That study showed that 44.2% of South Koreans do not think of immigrants or migrant workers as their neighbors.  This figure was significantly higher than in many other nations.  For example, only 21% of Germans, 10 percent of Australians and just over 3% of Swedes say the same thing.  In addition, and clearly my favorite statistics because of its absurdity, 31.3% of South Koreans said they do not accept different religions while only 3.4% of people answered the same in the United States.

In fact, South Korea is so specific in their policies they target specific immigrants for extra discrimination.   The Korea Herald reports “Korea also has a discriminatory policy against those who wish to immigrate to the country from specific countries, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Thailand.”

In the farming and fishing industries the treatment of migrant workers is downright shameful even though both industries, in many ways, are reliant on a migrant workforce.  Amnesty International also issued a report in October 2014 presenting evidence the exploitation and widespread use of forced migrant labor in the agricultural sector.

Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific Migrant Rights Researcher at Amnesty International argued, “the exploitation of migrant farm workers in South Korea is a stain on the country. The authorities have created a shameful system that allows trafficking for exploitation and forced labor to flourish.” Exploiting farm workers puts into question whether free market forces are in existence in South Korea in the market for labor or whether forced labor is being used to keep prices low.

This is not a partisan issue, former Clinton economist and undersecretary of commerce, Dr. Robert J. Shapiro expressed his concerns in a YouTube video over what’s going on in South Korea.  Resolving these issues will not be easy, but the international community has to exert its diplomatic and economic muscle to help right the ship.

President Obama is on the verge of a deal with Congress to grant fast track authority that will allow TPP to the front of legislative line for action this spring.  Thus, member parties to the Pacific trade deal should realize that now is the time to make adjustments to the draft agreement that strongly address abuses that are wide spread across the Pacific region, but particularly in South Korea.

It is important not to set up a scenario where member countries are forced to rubber stamp a long and complicated deal that provides South Korea with preferential treatment while we are aware of the serious human rights crisis in the country.

Brian Darling served as Sr. Communications Director and Counsel for Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) from 2012-15. Before his tenure with Sen. Paul, Darling served in three different capacities with The Heritage Foundation. Follow him @BrianHDarling on Twitter.


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