US, South Korea Agree to Disagree on Trade

South Korea this week pushed back against the United States’ demand to renegotiate the free trade agreement (FTA) between the close allies. 

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the five-year-old Korea-U.S. (KORUS) FTA as a horrible deal that created a $27 billion U.S. trade deficit with South Korea last year, and has said his administration would either renegotiate or terminate it.

Agree to disagree

At Washington’s urging, an initial special session was held on Tuesday by video conference between South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong and his American counterpart, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer, to negotiate amendments to the trade pact.

Afterwards the South Korea trade minister said the two sides disagreed on the need to amend the trade deal.

“We have found that the two sides have different views on the effects of the U.S. and South Korea Free Trade Agreement, the reason behind the trade deficit, and necessity for an amendment to the U.S. and South Korea FTA,” said Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong.

South Korean officials maintain the bilateral trade deficit is not the result of the FTA, but of the underperforming South Korean economy, where demand for imports have declined, contrasted with the more robust U.S. economy.

“For the last 10 years, South Korea’s market economy was not good, so the U.S. did not get opportunities to sell its products (to South Korea). If South Korea’s economy gets better and the U.S. economy gets worse, we may face the opposite situation,” said Chung Sye-kyun, the speaker of the South Korean National Assembly on Thursday at an event organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.

KORUS supporters in Seoul also argue the FTA benefits the U.S. economy and American workers. Last year, Korean companies like the electronics giant Samsung and the automaker Hyundai, employed 45,000 Americans and contributed $138 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.

‘Korea unique standards’

The USTR released a statement Wednesday saying it will continue bilateral talks to amend or modify the agreement and specifically identified the “burdensome regulations which often exclude U.S. firms or artificially set prices for American intellectual property” as a major issue of contention.

The auto industry accounts for nearly 80 percent of the bilateral trade deficit, as American car sales in South Korea have been slow, while Korean automobile sales in the United States have soared. The American business community has long blamed the deficit in part on non-tariff related “Korea unique standards,” often linked to environmental regulations or certification procedures that they say are imposed to protect the domestic market. Foreign companies are then forced to spend an inordinate amount of time and money to deal with these regulations that are often introduced without notice or clear explanations.

South Korean authorities have downplayed charges of unfair trade practices, saying most complaints have been resolved through negotiations without the need for amending the FTA.

The South Korean Trade Minister said while this week’s meeting did not reach any agreement on how to proceed, neither side talked about terminating the FTA. 

The Korea Times newspaper in Seoul on Friday published an editorial advising the South Korean government that “a good offense is the best defense” in any upcoming trade negotiations. It recommended Seoul press Washington to loosen its intellectual property rights protections and rules regarding disputes between investors and the state, and to threaten to reduce agriculture and energy imports if the situation becomes overly contentious.

The potential rift over trade comes at a time when Washington and Seoul have been emphasizing their close military alliance and joint support for increasing sanctions on North Korea to pressure the Kim Jong Un government to return to international denuclearization talks.

This week some 17,500 American and 50,000 South Koreans troops are participating in joint strategic military exercises that deal with how to respond to possible North Korean attack scenarios.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report

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