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(LEAD) (News Focus) Amb. Han's resignation seen as associated with S. Korean politics

All Headlines 09:15 February 17, 2012

(ATTN: CLARIFIES 3rd, 7th, 14th paras and headline)
By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 (Yonhap) -- "Call him an FTA man!"

Since the abrupt resignation offer made by Han Duck-soo, South Korea's ambassador to the U.S, speculation is growing over the background of the move.

Diplomatic sources here say it appears to be related to South Korea's politics in a year of parliamentary and presidential elections.

"The South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) will become the hottest issue in this year's two major elections," a source said.

The Lee Myung-bak administration and the ruling party apparently need a prominent figure to help in their fight against the opposition block, which is demanding the re-negotiation of the trade deal known as "KORUS FTA," according to the source.

Han, a veteran bureaucrat, is a symbolic official in the annals of the FTA, which is the largest U.S. trade pact since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

In 2006, Han served as special assistant to then-President Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal-minded leader, in efforts to forge an FTA with Washington. He served as prime minister between 2007 and 2008 and the FTA was signed in 2007.

The conservative Lee administration, which came to power in 2008, unexpectedly tapped Han as top envoy in Washington.

Few denied that Han's main mission was to deal with getting U.S. congressional approval of the FTA.

"Amb. Han is expected to be appointed as the head of the Korea International Trade Association," another source said. The post is also closely linked with the FTA issue.

Although Han served in top positions under different administrations, he is known to have an unswerving belief that free trade is necessary.

He apparently wants the KORUS FTA to go into effect as early as possible since it gained parliamentary endorsements in the both nations last year.

But the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP), which was the ruling party when the KORUS FTA was forged, announced recently that it would seek the nullification of the pact if it gains the legislative majority in April and wins the presidency in December.

The DUP's leader is Han Myeong-sook, who was the prime minister between 2006 and 2007.

For the Lee government, the outgoing ambassador can be a trump card to counter the DUP leader over the FTA issue, according to the source.

"Serving as ambassador in the U.S. for the past three years, Han made every effort to lobby Congress and publicize the benefits of the KORUS FTA. Now he faces a new mission to reach out to Korean people in order to defend it," added the source.

Initially, Han openly said he would step down once the accord is approved in U.S. Congress.

He reportedly offered to resign when the FTA passed Congress in October last year but President Lee asked him to remain in the post through the end of his administration.

The political crisis of the Lee government ahead of key elections, however, seems to have changed the situation.

Han's resignation offer came as a surprise given a number of pending issues, including President Barack Obama's attendance at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in March, ongoing consultations over technical issues to implement the KORUS FTA and Washington's pressure for Seoul to join in a campaign to tighten sanctions on Iran.

Asked about why he decided to step down, Han simply told Yonhap News Agency that he served at the ambassadorial post "long enough."

He may give more hints of his intentions when he holds a press conference for South Korean correspondents in Washington on Friday (local time).



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