Robust debate over key policy issues, with opposition parties exercising the right and duty to support their constituencies and holding the ruling party to account, is a mark of democracy and few concerns are as contentious as trade.

The debate in South Korea over ratification of the long-pending Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS) has fallen into confusion. Opponents of KORUS have even resorted to physical obstruction of a vote on an agreement — which was initiated, negotiated and agreed by the opposition Democratic Party’s own president.

KORUS was negotiated by then South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun and his U.S. counterpart, Mr. George W. Bush, and signed by them in 2007. It then languished in the two legislatures as both governments worked to overcome political opposition.

In 2010, Washington and Seoul reopened the agreement to make adjustments that facilitated its passage in the U.S. Congress. According to South Korea’s Democratic Party, that deal undermined the legitimacy of the entire agreement, justifying the party’s embrace of all forms of resistance, including physical obstruction of the National Assembly debate.

The ruling Grand National Party has the votes to secure passage, but the opposition dismisses that as “the tyranny of numbers,” an attitude with which Japan is familiar.

In this country, however, there is no experience of an opposition rejecting legislation that was crafted when it was in office.

The opposition DP charges that the agreement has been transformed by the 2010 negotiations while the ruling party points to advantages that continue to accrue to South Korea. The supporters of KORUS point out that by all accounts, it earns considerably more economic benefits in the deal than does the U.S., even with the changes, and that the strategic benefits that have been touted in the past are even more skewed in Seoul’s favor.

In fact, the aim of the DP appears to be to rally public sentiment ahead of legislative and presidential elections next year. It expects the government to use force to secure approval, which the DP then can use in the campaigns next year. Even if the party may have reason to oppose KORUS, if it takes such an approach, it could turn into a cynical exercise, one unbefitting an opposition that has a much more solid base upon which it can contest next year’s ballots.

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