Foreign policy as a socially divisive issue: the KORUS free-trade agreement

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While the Korea–United States (KORUS) free-trade agreement negotiations were concluded in 2007, and ratified in 2011, the agreement has remained deeply controversial. Labor unions, civil society groups, and opposition politicians in South Korea have criticized the agreement as being unfair, and also in the United States have voices spoken out against the agreement. The process of negotiation by South Korea was deeply flawed, and the conclusion of the agreement, that included a unilateral ratification by the ruling party in National Assembly, was forcefully opposed by many groups in South Korean society with violent demonstrations leading almost to the collapse of the Lee Myung-bak government. This article argues that it was not only the perception of potential economic damage to, in particular agricultural, domestic interest that was the main cause of the public resistance to the agreement, but that the unique nature of the relationship with the United States, and how this influenced the progress of negotiating and ratifying the agreement in South Korea, was a leading course of the divisiveness of the agreement and the massive resistance it faced. This is also why while the conservative Park Geun-hye government has expressed its willingness to re-negotiate other free-trade agreements, it has remained adamant in its refusal to even consider reopening the KORUS agreement. It is not only the apparent trade benefits that accrued to South Korea that is behind this refusal. With the ruling party having lost the April 2016 National Assembly elections and presidential elections scheduled for December 2017, the conservative elite, concerned about its electoral fate, has no interest in re-opening such a divisive issue as the KORUS free-trade agreement.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)566-580
Number of pages15
JournalPacific Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2017 Jul 4


  • Korea
  • United States
  • conflict
  • free-trade agreements
  • trade policy

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