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Prospects for U.S.-Korea Economic Relations under New Administrations in Seoul and Washington


By Phil Eskeland

In 2017, both the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States face various challenges and opportunities in the growing economic relationship.  Korea is now America’s 6th largest trading partner, ahead of the United Kingdom and France.  As a nation that once was a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid, South Korea has rapidly advanced to become the world’s 13th largest economy, ahead of Canada and Spain.  However, these achievements are not locked in forever.  As the new ROK and U.S. administrations interact and deal with each other, both sides must avoid “unforced errors” and cooperate with each other as much as possible to confront domestic and international trends that place impediments on both economies, such as stagnant wage growth, aging population, mismatched workforce, and the siren song of trade protectionism.

The first major challenge is establishing an accurate analysis of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).  The agreement’s success or failure should not be measured by just a single metric of the merchandise trade deficit, which parenthetically decreased in 2016, but on a comprehensive review of all of its effects.

  1. Total trade volume (imports and exports) between the two countries has increased since pre-KORUS levels (2011).  In fact, the most recent data from the Commerce Department shows that the U.S. exported a record level of manufactured goods and agricultural products to Korea for the month of March 2017 at $4.36 billion, the highest level since March 2014.
  2. The United States continues to break records in the export of services to Korea, producing the highest trade surplus ever for the U.S. in 2016.  This trade surplus reduced the overall goods and services trade deficit between the two countries to $17 billion.  As a result, Korea’s bilateral trade deficit with the U.S. is ranked well below other nations, including China, Germany, Mexico, Japan, and even Italy.
  3. According to the Commerce Department, U.S. exports to Korea have led to an increase of 87,000 jobs in the United States between 2009 and 2015, including 55,000 jobs in the goods sector, which pay 16 percent more on average than other employment.
  4. Korea now represents the 5th fastest-growing source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the United States, employing over 45,000 workers in the U.S. earning an average compensation package of $92,000 a year.
  5. Because U.S. exports of items covered by KORUS have increased by 18 percent since 2011, the agreement has helped to reduce the merchandise trade deficit by nearly $16 billion.

Thus, the KORUS FTA meets every metric of a successful trade agreement as outlined by the Trump Administration.  In fact, if reducing the trade deficit is the main concern, then the Trump Administration should focus their attention on other countries first before Korea.

Nonetheless, there is always room for improvement.  The KORUS FTA has a binational committee process to iron out differences in implementing the agreement.  This has greatly helped resolve numerous thorny issues without having to go through the difficult process of amending KORUS.  For example, clarifying the rules of origin on orange juice helped to dramatically increase sales to Korea, giving a boost to Florida citrus growers and producers at a critical moment when the U.S. market is declining.  In addition, Donald Trump won the Sunshine State – a key “swing” state with the most Electoral College votes – in the last presidential election.  However, both sides should avoid unforced errors by either scrapping the agreement or refusing to negotiate.  If KORUS is scrapped, hard-won gains for many U.S. exporters, including Florida orange juice producers, would vanish.  While KORUS is relatively new, it could be updated in a few areas, such as in intellectual property and e-commerce, though preferably through supplemental side agreements to avoid re-opening up the entire text.  The Trump Administration could lift the relevant IP and e-commerce sections from the now defunct Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and offer to add these provisions to KORUS.

Second, international monetary policy could be another challenge to the U.S.-Korea relationship.  Every six months, the U.S. Treasury produces a report that identifies potential currency manipulators if three conditions are met:  (1) if there is a significant bilateral trade surplus with the United States; (2) if there is a material current account surplus; and (3) if the nation has engaged in persistent one-sided intervention in the foreign exchange market.  While Treasury did not identify any trading partner as a currency manipulator in its most recent report, the department included six countries, including Korea, on its monitoring list.  Some in the U.S. advocate adding provisions to prevent currency manipulation by other nations into trade agreements.  However, this challenge could represent an opportunity for Korea to be pro-active in responding to critics by being fully transparent in any governmental actions in foreign exchange operations.

Third, U.S. “fair trade” laws could also represent a challenge and opportunity in U.S.-Korea economic relations.  As with most U.S. administrations, the emphasis on trade during the first year in office usually focuses on enforcing existing agreements, not enacting new ones.  The Trump Administration is no different, but the prominence of trade enforcement has been amplified, particularly with the announcements of a series of reviews and investigations.  Both sides should take a step back to insure that enforcement actions do not lead misperceptions and unforced errors.  Korean companies should be extremely vigilant to make sure that they do not sell their product in the U.S. at a loss.  On the flip side, the Commerce Department should also be diligent to make sure it is not biased towards U.S. industry regarding allegations of unfair trade.  For example, the U.S. should implement the World Trade Organization (WTO) decision that disallows the use of “zeroing” (i.e., disregarding allegedly “non-dumped” sales in order to inflate dumping margins) to estimate higher tariff penalties.  Commerce should also consider the ramifications of a trade case for the entire U.S. economy because, ultimately, increased tariffs are another form of taxation that gets passed along to consumers in terms of higher prices.  As learned during the 2002/2003 steel tariff debate, many more American jobs at manufacturing facilities that used steel were at risk than in the steel industry as their final products were priced out of the marketplace.

Fourth, the two new administrations should give an opportunity for Korea to shine by highlighting and publicizing more of its FDI into the United States.  As stated above, Korea is now the 5th fastest growing source of FDI into the United States, which has accelerated since the implementation of the KORUS FTA.  If new investments are forthcoming, Korean companies would do well to let the American people and the Trump Administration know of this news to generate good will.

Finally, both countries would do well to continue its global partnership on numerous fronts:  cybersecurity, space, science, energy, environment, health security, Arctic cooperation, among others, that have enormous economic ramifications for both countries.  These important issues unfortunately do not receive the attention that they deserve because they are non-contentious, apolitical concerns.  Just because these initiatives were started by previous administrations should not mean that they are put to the wayside.  If anything, these issues, such as continuing the work of the U.S.-Korea Joint Committee on Science and Technology, should form the foundation for building further cooperation on economic and trade issues between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea.

 

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Saik Kim’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.        

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