Tag Archive | "FTA"

Agreement to Renegotiate KORUS FTA Removes Threat of Withdrawal for the Moment

By Troy Stangarone

Shortly after the first summit meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in, the United States notified South Korea that it would like to convene a meeting of the Joint Committee under the U.S.-Korea FTA, or KORUS FTA, to discuss amending the agreement. Amending the KORUS FTA has been an objective of President Trump since last year’s presidential campaign and after the most recent meeting of the Joint Committee the United States and South Korea have agreed to renegotiations.

This will be the second time that the United States has pushed to renegotiate the KORUS FTA, which was originally signed in 2007 but not implemented until 2012. Much as was the case after the agreement was originally concluded in 2007, the new talks will likely focus on addressing issues in automotive trade.

Since coming into force, the United States trade deficit with South Korea has grown from $13.2 billion to $27.7 billion, but is down 28.1 percent through August. Over the same period, the United States trade deficit in the automotive sector has grown 77 percent to $24 billion and accounts for nearly 90 percent of the overall U.S. trade deficit with South Korea according to USTR.

While the automotive sector will be one of the key issues in talks, other issues that could potentially be discussed include implementation issues or revisions related to legal services, agricultural tariffs, data localization, digital trade, rules of origin and investment protections. While not all issues will apply, the ongoing talks over NAFTA also provide a good guide to the administration’s potential goals. At the same time, we should also expect South Korea to develop a list of areas where it would like to see changes that would be favorable to it as well.

Before entering into formal talks to amend the FTA, South Korea will need to undergo domestic consultation procedures including conducting an economic feasibility study, public hearings, and making a report to the National Assembly. As long as any South Korean requests do not require changes to U.S. law, the United States will be able to conduct the negotiations without utilizing the procedures under Trade Promotion Authority and already has authority to make any tariff changes agreed to with South Korea.

Additionally, with the agreement to renegotiate the KORUS FTA, the United States threat to withdraw from the agreement should further recede into the background. At today’s Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing, Jeffrey Gerrish, nominee for Deputy USTR for Asia, and Gregory Doud, nominee for Chief Agriculture Negotiator, both noted that the administration should do no harm to existing FTAs. But the threat could still resurface as in the NAFTA talks where President Trump mused after renegotiations began that he could still decide to withdraw from NAFTA. So, the prospect that the issue of withdrawing from KORUS could return at a future date.

However, the current security situation makes it imperative that the talks proceed smoothly and that the threat of withdraw is removed from the equation. As North Korea moves closer to completing its nuclear and missile programs, it will be increasingly important for the United States and South Korea to maintain close policy coordination and avoid issues that could create tensions in the alliance at a critical stage.

An improved KORUS FTA has the potential to benefit both the United States and South Korea. In the area of digital trade, well-known companies such as Facebook and Youtube were only just establishing themselves and updating the agreement to reflect modern trade patterns should be mutually beneficial. The key is to find ways to enhance the agreement rather and avoid disputes that create tensions in the alliance.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Natig Sharifov’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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No Reason to Withdraw from the KORUS FTA

By Phil Eskeland

Rumors flooded Washington over the Labor Day holiday weekend that the U.S. would soon withdraw from the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).  When President Donald Trump visited hurricane-damaged Houston, Texas on Saturday, he was asked by reporters about this development and responded that he would discuss the fate of KORUS with his advisers this week.

The White House may have delayed a decision on withdrawal from the agreement until the publication of the most updated monthly trade statistical information from the Foreign Trade Division of the U.S. Census Bureau at the Department of Commerce.  Earlier this morning, this data was released to reveal two interesting points.

First, while U.S. exports of merchandise goods to the Republic of Korea (ROK) in July fell by a modest 3.7 percent as compared to June, the level was 16 percent higher than July 2016.   As a result, the Year to Date (YTD) merchandise trade deficit between the U.S. and South Korea still remains well below last year’s level.  Thus far, the YTD (January – July) merchandise trade deficit between the U.S. and South Korea is $13.1 billion (vs. $18.8 billion in 2016), representing a 30 percent decrease.  If present trends continue, the trade imbalance in goods alone would drop below $20 billion for 2017.

Second, when adding in trade in services, the latest release illustrates a more complete picture.   As part of this morning’s release, 2017 2nd Quarter services data was also made public.  Once again, it shows a modest, but steady increase in U.S. services exports to Korea during the previous four quarters.  As a result, the YTD (January – June, 2017) bilateral trade imbalance of both goods and services between the U.S. and the ROK showed a decline of 50 percent (or half) when compared against a similar time period in 2016.

For the 1st and 2nd Quarters in 2016, the bilateral U.S.-ROK trade deficit of goods and services was $10.6 billion.  However, for the 1st and 2nd Quarters in 2017, the good and services trade deficit between the U.S. and South Korea dropped to just $5.25 billion, in part, because of the amazingly low goods and services deficit level of $1.5 billion for the 2nd Quarter (April – June) 2017.

For all of 2016, the U.S.-South Korea goods and services trade imbalance was $17.6 billion, representing one of the smaller deficits with any of America’s major trading partners.  If this trend continues, the U.S.-ROK combined goods and services trade deficit could be $9 billion or less for 2017, which represents near balance.

Now is exactly the wrong time to terminate the KORUS FTA.  Various tariff and non-tariff barriers to U.S. products would go up reversing the recent, hard-won progress made to lowering the trade imbalance between the U.S. and South Korea, which is one of the main goals of President Trump.  If improvements can be made to the agreement to further open markets, U.S. and Korean negotiators should take advantage of the opportunity to lock in these revisions irrespective of the possible effect on the trade imbalance.  However, a whole-scale rejection of the agreement would be unwise and counterproductive to advancing the goals of creating more prospects for U.S. exporters to sell in South Korea because tariffs (or import taxes) would snap-back to higher, pre-KORUS FTA levels, making U.S. products more expensive in Korea, particularly in relation to other foreign competitors that have a FTA with the ROK.

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 Diego Cambiaso’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Benefits of KORUS FTA Not Eclipsed by the Trade Deficit

By Donald Manzullo

When then-candidate Donald Trump first raised issues with the U.S.-Korea (KORUS) FTA in 2016, the United States had just seen its merchandise trade deficit with South Korea rise to a record $28 billion. As a candidate and president, Trump has placed an emphasis on the creation of U.S. jobs in the manufacturing sector and in reducing the U.S. trade deficit. However, much has changed since President Trump first raised his concerns about the KORUS FTA, which will be key for U.S. and South Korean trade negotiators as they prepare to meet at a session of the KORUS FTA’s Joint Committee.

As the United States and South Korea meet to discuss the free trade agreement, the United States is expected to raise its concern over the merchandise trade deficit and propose that the two countries consider amendments to the KORUS FTA to reduce the United States’ deficit. But while the original agreement was negotiated a decade ago and both sides should consider amendments to modernize the agreement to keep pace with changes in international trade, it is unclear that the FTA itself is responsible for the increase in the U.S. merchandise trade deficit with South Korea.

While the U.S. saw the deficit reach a peak in 2015, when Trump began his push against FTAs, the deficit actually declined slightly in 2016 to $27.7 and is down by nearly a third in 2017. This decrease in the U.S. merchandise deficit can be attributed to a significant growth in U.S. exports to South Korea, which began at the end of 2016, and a strong growth of 18 percent since 2011 in exports of U.S. goods covered by the agreement. Among these are exports of U.S. beef, which have risen to over $1 billion.

Since President Trump was elected, the United States has seen record levels of merchandise exports to South Korea in December, March, April, and May. Since the KORUS FTA was implemented, the majority of the growth in the deficit has come from trade in automobiles, but tariffs on imports of Korean automobiles were not eliminated until 2016. Yet, in the last year there have been fewer Korean automobiles imported into the United States.

Rather than being the cause of the U.S. merchandise deficit with South Korea, the KORUS FTA has helped to prevent the deficit from growing further. The U.S. International Trade Commission has estimated that without the KORUS FTA the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea would be $16 billion higher.

In addition, the FTA has benefited the United States in a variety of ways outside of keeping the trade deficit in check. The United States has seen strong exports of services to South Korea under the KORUS FTA, an area where the United States has a trade surplus. When the U.S. services exports are added to the $27.7 billion goods deficit, the overall deficit with South Korea drops to $17.6 billion. For every Korean who studies in the United States or visits, those are services exports that help to create jobs here. Last year, more than 61,000 Korean students studied in the United States, the 4th largest group behind China and India. Lastly, the United States has seen Korea foreign direct investment double, helping to support 47,000 U.S. jobs that earn an average compensation of $92,000.

As the United States and South Korea begin the process of reviewing the KORUS FTA, they should look for ways to expand access for producers of both countries. If there are still regulatory issues that are inhibiting the sale of U.S. autos, for example, the two sides should look for creative ways to ease those burdens so that the trading relationship remains a productive one for both parties. But they should also be leery of only judging the agreement’s success by the trade deficit. If the deficit were the only metric by which both parties judged the FTA only one would ever be able to see the agreement as a success. Instead, they should also keep in mind that the agreement has been a success for both countries and that market forces are already at work in reducing the trade deficit.

Donald Manzullo is President and CEO of Korea Economic Institute and former Member of U.S. Congress (1993-2013). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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

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What Do the Trump Administration’s NAFTA Objectives Mean for the KORUS FTA?

By Kyle Ferrier

Last week, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released its Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation, providing a window into how the administration may pursue updating the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA). Because USTR is taking a different approach on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) than on KORUS, calling a special Joint Committee meeting under KORUS rules rather than formally triggering the renegotiation process, it is not required to release a similar document outlining negotiation objectives with Korea. Yet, the administration’s regular singling out of both trade deals and characterization of each set of new talks suggests USTR may have similar objectives on both. What then does the summary of objectives for NAFTA portend for KORUS?

The biggest takeaway is that the proposed changes are not as extensive as the administration’s rhetoric on trade would suggest. Although Donald Trump lambasted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on the campaign trail and withdrew the U.S. from the deal on his third day in office, most of what USTR is looking to include in an updated NAFTA is either drawn directly from the TPP or generally congruent with the agreement. As such, Seoul should view renewed talks as an opportunity to update KORUS.

Apart from newer amendments on automobiles and beef, KORUS is 10 years old. Some chapters may be in more need of an update than others, particularly e-commerce, though both countries could benefit from revisiting all chapters to reflect more advanced rules. Mexico and Canada essentially went through this process with the U.S. for the TPP negotiations and will have to run the gamut again through the much older NAFTA, turning 23 this year. While Korea may not have been party to the TPP, in many ways KORUS was the foundation for the TPP and it has long been an observer of the deal. Seoul is well-acquainted with TPP rules and the domestic adjustments required to meet their stipulations, which should greatly facilitate discussions on KORUS.

In addition to upgrading the existing chapters, renewed talks could bring new chapters from the TPP to KORUS. The USTR document on NAFTA has separate sections on state-owned and controlled enterprises (SOEs), small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and good regulatory practices, all of which appeared as individual chapters for the first time in an FTA in the TPP. All three have potential benefits for the Korean economy, especially the SME chapter which seeks to make exporting easier for small companies, a perennial government priority. However, a currency chapter as suggested in the USTR document could be a sticking point.

Although the possible inclusion of currency manipulation provisions may be of concern to Seoul, the Trump administration is not likely to entirely give up on the issue. Addressing Washington’s concerns bilaterally through KORUS may even be a more acceptable venue. Korea is on the U.S. Treasury’s Monitoring List for currency manipulation, meeting two of the three thresholds of a manipulator. Trump’s threats to name China a currency manipulator earlier this year raised concerns that Treasury would alter its criteria, possibly naming Korea a manipulator in the process. Yet in its April report, Treasury largely followed the same methodology as was in previous reports and did not name any manipulators. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that the next report due out in October would maintain the same criteria, particularly as Trump publicly tied not naming China a manipulator to its help with North Korea, which he seemingly no longer views as a viable policy option.

The USTR objective on currency in the NAFTA document does not offer any specifics, only suggesting that exchange rate manipulation would be avoided “through an appropriate mechanism.” However, if this section were to also follow the precedent set by TPP, USTR will likely ask Seoul to be more transparent in its official currency market interventions, an issue that has been repeatedly raised in Treasury’s international currency reports to Congress. In a 2015 Joint Declaration, TPP countries committed to avoiding currency manipulation as well as publicly reporting their foreign-exchange interventions. As public reporting of foreign-exchange interventions relates to the only Treasury criteria that Korea does not meet (i.e. repeated net purchases of foreign currency more than 2 percent of GDP over the previous 12 months), it may be in Korea’s best interest to be more transparent regardless of this issue arising in trade talks with the United States. Additionally, through KORUS talks, addressing currency manipulation and other contentious issues that might have made Korea hesitant to join the TPP could even help facilitate its accession to the agreement, for which there are convincing arguments.

Although USTR’s objectives for NAFTA largely suggest that the Joint Committee meeting will be used as an opportunity to update KORUS based on free trade principles, Korea should be cautious as well.  Of high concern for Canada and Mexico is USTR’s objective to eliminate the Chapter 19 dispute settlement mechanism for trade remedies as well as eliminate the global safeguard exclusion for NAFTA countries outlined in Article 802. This would make it easier for the U.S. to apply more anti-dumping and countervailing duty measures against both countries and simultaneously more difficult for them to contest these measures. While there is no global safeguard exclusion in KORUS (Article 10.5 says imports “may” be excluded rather than “shall” in Article 802) nor does it go as far as NAFTA on dispute settlement (Article 10.7 does not create binational panels to resolve disputes as does Chapter 19), some are worried these specific objectives are how the Trump administration plans to advance protectionism. Others also expressed concern over the first objective, which states “Improve the U.S. trade balance and reduce the trade deficit with the NAFTA countries,” as a possible avenue to implement managed trade rather than free trade.

Though it is too early to definitively gauge how Joint Committee talks will proceed, there is reason enough for Korea to be cautiously optimistic about U.S. negotiating goals. Yet, Seoul would be wise to closely follow the NAFTA renegotiation, giving special attention to areas with the potential to promote protectionism and managed trade.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Image from Michael Vadon’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Since Trump’s Election, the U.S.-Korea Trade Deficit Has Been Reduced by One-Third

By Phil Eskeland 

Last March, President Donald Trump directed the Department of Commerce and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to prepare an Omnibus Report on Significant Trade Deficits within 90 days.  South Korea has been identified as a country that would be included in this report based on 2016 data that shows U.S. goods exports to Korea declined and the trade deficit has grown since the implementation of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).  While awaiting completion of the report, USTR also issued a letter to Korea asking for a special meeting of the Joint Committee to discuss possible amendments and modifications to the KORUS FTA to address the “significant trade imbalance” between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea.   However, both efforts use outdated statistics with respect to the latest data in the U.S.-Korea trade relationship.

Since President Trump was elected in November, the monthly bilateral merchandise trade imbalance between the U.S. and South Korea has been less that the previous year.  Thus, the six month (December through May) cumulative goods deficit has been cut by more than one-third (or 34 percent) as compared to same six-month time period from the previous year.  One reason for this reduction is that for the months of December, March, April, and May, the U.S. has hit repeated record levels of merchandise exports to Korea – $4.27 billion in December, $4.36 billion in March, $4.43 billion in April, and $4.5 billion in May.  While trade statistics are not available from the U.S. government yet for the month of June, the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) reported that South Korea imported a record $4.8 billion in goods from the United States in June, resulting in yet another month in which the bilateral merchandise trade deficit was significantly less than last year’s level.

Trade Data 7.2017-02

This trend is even more pronounced when you include services trade.   Comparing the combined trade imbalance statistic of the 4th Quarter 2015 and 1st Quarter 2016 with the 4th Quarter 2016 and 1st Quarter 2017[1] (in other words, since Trump’s nomination for president), the trade deficit in both goods and services between the U.S. and the ROK dropped by 37 percent.

Trade Data 7.2017-01

This updated information should be incorporated in any analysis of the bilateral trade deficit and as part of any administration strategy to reduce the trade imbalance between the U.S. and South Korea.  It appears that the free market and the KORUS FTA is already working to accomplish the Trump Administration’s goal with respect to lowering the trade deficit between the two countries.

[1] 2nd Quarter 2017 data on trade in services will not be made available until early September.

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Image from Tom Driggers’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.      

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What Does the Call for a KORUS FTA Special Meeting Mean for Korea?

By Phil Eskeland

On July 12, 2017, Ambassador Robert Lighthizer of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) sent a letter to Minister Joo Huynghwan of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy of the Republic of Korea (ROK) requesting the convening of a special session of the Joint Committee as provided for in the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) to discuss possible revisions to the agreement.  Specifically, the letter conveys the desire on behalf of the Trump Administration to “review progress on the implementation of the Agreement, resolve several problems regarding market access in Korea for U.S. exports, and, most importantly, address our significant trade imbalance.”

First, it is important to note that this request is a far cry from threats to terminate the KORUS FTA.  Nonetheless, this action should not be unexpected in light of past campaign rhetoric by President Donald Trump, but represents a prospect to possibly make amendments and modifications to the base text of the agreement.

This meeting can be an opportunity for both South Korea and the United States to update and modernize this 10-year old agreement.  There have been many changes in the global economy since KORUS FTA negotiations concluded in 2007, particularly in the field of digital trade.  Korea could offer specific changes to policies that have hindered full and open access to U.S. exporters, such as recognition of U.S. automobile safety standards.  On the flip-side, Korea should not be reticent in asking for changes in U.S. policies that have hampered Korean exports to the United States.

However, it is disappointing to see the use of just one set of trade statistics by the Trump Administration without incorporating other factors, such as trade in services data that continues to produce record surpluses for the U.S., that form a more complete and accurate economic picture as it relates to Korea.  The merchandise trade deficit issue serves as an unfortunate scapegoat for economic stagnation in many parts of the United States that has other causes.

Nevertheless, when examining the totality of trade between the U.S. and Korea in both goods and services, the KORUS FTA has been a success because:

  1. Total U.S. exports to Korea grew (not declined) by $2 billion between 2011 and 2016; and
  2. The total U.S. trade deficit in goods and services with Korea is ranked well below other nations, including Italy (see chart below).  Far from being a significant contributor to America’s trade imbalance, Korea’s portion is only 2.9 percent of the total U.S. trade deficit with countries of the world that export more to the U.S. than they import from us.

2017 KORUS Pie Chart

In addition, the independent U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) concluded last year that the KORUS FTA improved the U.S.-Korea merchandise trade imbalance in America’s favor by $15.8 billion.  In other words, the bilateral trade imbalance between the U.S. and Korea would have been much higher absent the KORUS FTA because U.S. exports of items that were covered by the agreement have dramatically increased since implementation.  Just ask the U.S. agricultural community about the growth of U.S. exports of beef, cherries, blueberries, lobsters, almonds, and a host of other American agrarian products to Korea regarding the positive impact of the KORUS FTA.  Many of these rural farming and ranching communities are located in counties and states that voted for Donald Trump.

In fact, the most recent trade statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce continue to show the U.S. exporting a record level of goods across-the-board to Korea since the beginning of the year.  During May, 2017, (the latest data available), the U.S. sold nearly $4.5 billion worth of goods to Korea – the highest monthly level in the history of U.S.-Korea trade relations.  This has helped to produce a 33 percent reduction in the bilateral trade imbalance thus far this year, in comparison to 2016 levels, continuing a declining trend in the U.S.-Korea trade deficit that started mid-last year, well before the U.S. presidential election.

In short, the free market and the KORUS FTA is working on its own accord to resolve the Trump Administration’s concern about the merchandise trade imbalance with Korea.   If present trends continue, the U.S. may experience a lower bilateral merchandise trade deficit with Korea in 2017 than we have seen for the past several years – all without any action by USTR.

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 National Ocean Service’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.      

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Challenges in Relations with the U.S. under the Moon Administration

This is the seventh in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations for the new Korean administration. The series also includes blogs on relations with North KoreaChina, Japan, Russia, the European Union, ASEANAfrica, the Middle East, and Latin America

By Kyle Ferrier

The United States is a crucial security and economic partner for South Korea. Not only is the U.S. treaty obligated to defend South Korea, but 28,500 American troops are stationed below the DMZ. Should an armed conflict arise on the peninsula Washington would assume operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces. Since its implementation in March 2012, the KORUS FTA has helped to secure the U.S. as South Korea’s second largest trading partner, making it the cornerstone of the bilateral economic relationship. While the strength of these ties is built on a foundation of shared values transcending leadership transitions over the years, U.S. President Donald Trump has openly disputed fundamental aspects of the relationship. For the newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, just as central to resolving the issues raised by Trump will be understanding his approach to foreign affairs.

Trump won the U.S. presidential election last November on a platform of radical change. In contrast to the mood of Obama’s campaign in 2008 which employed slogans such as “Hope” and “Yes We Can,” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” complemented his bleak portrayal of a broken American system abused by elites and foreign countries alike. Trump often put South Korea in his crosshairs, claiming they did not pay enough for U.S. troops stationed there—going so far as to suggest withdrawing military personnel in exchange for allowing Seoul to have nuclear weapons as a cost saving measure—and criticizing the KORUS FTA for destroying U.S. jobs.

Once elected, Trump was quick to reverse course on the alliance, assuring President Park of U.S. commitment just one day later. Since then South Korea has hosted a steady stream of senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Matthis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, and most recently CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Although these visits are an extension of initial efforts to reassure Seoul, they are contrasted by Trump’s “disruptive” approach to foreign policy, which draws on his campaign rhetoric, prioritizes his interpretation of American interests, and is underwritten by unpredictability. The disruptive approach is seemingly being applied to adversary and ally alike, which directly impacts South Korea through U.S. policy on North Korea as well as issues of alliance management and bilateral trade.

The Trump administration has repeatedly stated Obama’s second term policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea is dead, yet it may just be going by a different name. At the onset of his presidency, Trump was relatively quiet on North Korea, with some hoping this might be interpreted as a willingness to talk with Kim Jong-un. However, since mid-March the administration has taken a more forceful stance. Secretary Matthis first announced the end of “strategic patience” on his trip to Seoul. Soon after, multiple senior officials and even Trump himself claimed military options were back on the table, particularly a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Then, after a two-month policy review, the administration released its agenda of “maximum pressure and engagement,” which some have noted is remarkably similar to “strategic patience.” Both are centered on pressuring Beijing to influence Pyongyang and waiting for credible indications from the North that they are willing to reduce their illicit weapons programs. Despite posturing otherwise, security realities in Northeast Asia look to be constraining Trump to largely continuing Obama’s approach, at least for the time being, which is more than can be said for alliance management and trade relations.

Although Trump seemed to be shying away from campaign calls for Seoul to pay more for U.S. military presence on the peninsula, recent comments raise new questions, particularly for an upcoming milestone in the alliance. Trump’s call for South Korea to pay $1 billion for the THAAD missile defense system in an April 28 interview was refuted by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster only a few days later. However, it was not enough to erase the negative impact on the public discourse in South Korea, unnecessarily complicating Moon’s promised domestic review of THAAD’s deployment. The president’s comments also raise questions over how he may attempt to shape the renewal of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that is set to expire at the end of this year, which governs the burden sharing arrangement. It is certainly conceivable that Trump may influence SMA negotiations by similarly calling for Seoul to contribute more to the alliance, including the potential to leverage OPCON.

The last major challenge for the Moon administration will be addressing Trump’s criticism of the KORUS FTA. Trump has repeatedly attacked the trade deal, citing the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with South Korea, though it is still unclear if he will pursue the actions he has espoused. KORUS was one of only two trade agreements singled out for not meeting expectations in The President’s Trade Policy Agenda released by USTR, the other being NAFTA. Trump recently suggested that he might terminate the agreement if South Korea was not open to renegotiations, similar to the approach he has taken with NAFTA.

Whereas the relevant senior U.S. officials have attempted to counter Trump’s disruptive approach to North Korea and the alliance, competing coalitions within the administration on trade further obscures how U.S. policy might be carried out. On the one hand, there are those who favor policies more traditionally associated with protectionism: Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Director of the new Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro, and USTR nominee Robert Lighthizer. And on the other are those who support greater global engagement: Director of the National Trade Council Gary Cohn and Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner. Although it is not yet clear how the U.S. will seek to pursue new concerns over KORUS—despite generally favorable reports by USTR and the US International Trade Commission released in the past year—the first major hurdle will come at the end of June when Commerce and USTR are expected to release their findings from a major review of all bilateral trading relationships.

How soon the Moon administration attempts to address these challenges with the United States will significantly dictate their potential impact on U.S.-South Korea relations. Whether it is growing pains or a more structural issue, the Trump administration’s implementation of foreign policy so far has negatively influenced South Korean public opinion. While the newly adopted policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” is remarkably similar to “strategic patience,” the process of getting there raised serious questions about U.S. credibility through concerns such as the location of the USS Carl Vinson and the perception that Washington would pre-emptively strike North Korea without consent from Seoul. Efforts by senior U.S. officials to smooth over some of Trump’s more controversial remarks have helped to stabilize relations, but the U.S. loses face each time. Even so, there are still contentious remarks that have not been sufficiently addressed.

Recent polling shows Trump’s popularity in Korea has sharply declined—falling below China’s Xi Jinping who is punishing South Koreans over THAAD. Koreans still view the U.S. favorably, yet it is unclear how long this duality can be sustained. A poor public opinion of the United States would severely constrain Moon’s ability to successfully coordinate the issues Trump has raised, which should make early and direct dialogue with his counterpart in Washington a high priority.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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Seoul, Washington, and Pyongyang: Delicate Diplomatic Triangle for President Moon Jae-in

By Robert R. King

The campaign is over; ballots have been cast; the result is clear—Moon Jae-in will be in the Blue House within a few days.

The most critical foreign affairs issue on the agenda of the new President is the South’s relationship with North Korea, and entwined with that issue is its relationship with the United States.  Though the new American President passed his first 100 days in office just a few days ago, there is still considerable uncertainty about the direction of American foreign policy, and one of the most sensitive issues facing the United States is North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.  The relationship with North Korea is the most critical question for the South and its new president, and because of the military ties with Washington, how to deal with the North will also be the key issue in relations with Washington.

President Moon begins his contacts with the new American president at something of a disadvantage.  When President Trump moved into the White House, South Korea was in the midst of the impeachment of Moon’s elected predecessor Park Geun-hye.  As a result, Trump met with Japan’s Prime Minister during the transition (his first post-election meeting with a foreign leader) and again after his inauguration in Washington and at Mar-a-Lago.  The American President also met in early April with Chinese President Xi Jingping.  The American Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State have both met with counterparts in Seoul in recognition of the importance of Korea in American policy, but the chemistry and content of bond between the two presidents has yet to emerge.

It is also not clear where there may be differences on the North between the two leaders.  During the campaign, Moon has expressed the desire for engagement with the North and better relations.  Trump has expressed serious concern about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but he has also expressed a willingness to meet directly with the North’s leader Kim Jong-un.  His first statement was made early in his tenure, but he repeated it again just last week.  Trump told Bloomberg News just a week ago that he would meet with Kim Jong-un under the right circumstances—“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely; I would be honored to do it.  If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”

South Korea’s new president, who was still a candidate ten days ago, cited this statement by America’s President and concluded that Trump is “more reasonable than perceived” and suggested that he and Trump were taking a similar position in favor of bringing the North back to negotiations on the nuclear issue.  It remains to be seen, however, how close the two presidents are on the details of how best to bring the North into denuclearization negotiations.

Another potentially serious issue that could create problems between the two presidents and their countries with regard to policy toward the North is THAAD, the U.S. defensive missile system now deployed in the South as agreed to by Moon’s predecessor.  The U.S. rushed to get the system in place before the election, although Moon expressed concerns about the deployment and the belief that the next government should review the decision, his political and ideological allies were vocally opposed to the deployment throughout the election.  This will likely be a serious point of contention that could create difficulties for relations between the U.S. and South Korea.

It is made more complex by the fact that China has been particularly opposed to THAAD and has taken steps to make the deployment more costly for the South by significantly cutting back Chinese tourism to South Korea—a major source of income and consumer goods sales in the South—as well as boycotting retail outlets in China owned by the South Korean conglomerate which sold land to the South Korean government on which THAAD is based.  THAAD is an issue that has serious security and domestic political implications for President Moon, but one of the most difficult will be the effect the issue has on the American-South Korea relationship.

Making the issue even more awkward and controversial was President Trump’s pronouncement last week that he expected the South to pay the $1 billion cost for the missile defense system.  His comment came less than ten days before the South Korean election, and was certainly not welcomed by pro-U.S. presidential candidates in the South.  Trump’s statement calling for the South to pay for THAAD was linked to his call for a renegotiation of the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement (KORUS).  The U.S. National Security Advisor, General McMasters, however, reassured his counterpart in Seoul that the U.S. would keep its previous commitment on the missile system.

The bottom line is that uncertainty and shifting policy signals from the Oval Office will not make the task of the new South Korean president an easy one.  He will likely have his own learning-curve and unintended missteps, which will make his task harder.  The relationship between Seoul and Washington is critically important for both countries, however.  It will take a great deal of maturity and understanding on the part of both presidents to deal with North Korea.  There is a great deal at stake for all sides.

 

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.   He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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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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Why This May Be South Korea’s Most Consequential Presidential Election

By Troy Stangarone

After months of protests across South Korea that culminated in the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, South Koreans will go to the polls on May 9 to select her successor. Regardless of which candidate wins the election, the upcoming presidency may be the most significant for South Korea since the transition to the opposition with Kim Dae-jung cemented the democratic ideal of the transition of power and he was thrust into managing what is known in South Korea as the IMF crisis. The next administration will come into office at time when South Korea faces a wide array of economic, political, social, and security challenges.

The next president will need to begin by restoring confidence in government. The impeachment of President Park has divided society and exposed the continuing ties between government and business that have left a legacy of scandal trailing each administration. Prior scandals have not always directly involved the president, but the impeachment indicates a growing intolerance in South Korean society for ever too close of relations between the government and business. Addressing this issue will mean the next administration will need to consider reforms in both government and the chaebol.

If restoring confidence in government were not challenging enough, the next president will come into office at a time when South Korea faces critical domestic and international challenges that will need to be addressed. The South Korean economy in many ways is at a crossroads. After years of success as an exporting powerhouse, exports have been largely stagnant in recent years and South Korea faces increasing competition from lower wage countries such as China which have cut into key sectors for South Korea’s economy such as steel and shipbuilding, while becoming increasingly competitive in consumer electronics as well.

The challenges from international economic competition are coupled with domestic economic challenges. South Korea’s rate of economic growth has continued to decline and is expected to only by 2 percent in 2018. As the economy slows, income inequality has risen and will likely only continue to do so the economy becomes more oriented around services industries.

To begin addressing slowing economic growth and income inequality, the next administration will need to focus on structural reforms and labor market reform. South Korea needs structural reforms to address overcapacity in troubled areas such as steel, shipping, and ship building. At the same time, reforms are needed in the labor market as well. South Korea’s current two-tiered system made of a well-protected class of permanent workers and temporary workers who have few protections has created rigidities in the labor market that have limited job growth, especially for the young.

South Korea’s economic challenges have also created social challenges. As South Korean society rapidly ages, young South Koreans have seen their opportunities narrow even with one of the highest rates of college graduates in the world. While facing decade long highs in unemployment, young South Koreans face concerns about their future in a slowing economy and in a society that they see as constraining their opportunities.

If the young have seen increasing challenges, South Korea itself faces impending problems from its rapidly aging population. In the years ahead, over the next administration the working age population is expected to decline to just under 36 million and continue declining in the years after while the overall population will continue to grow until 2030. This means an increasing percentage of South Korea’s population will be in retirement with fewer workers to support them. This challenge is compounded by South Korea having the highest level of old age poverty in the OECD despite President Park having worked to improve the social safety net.

South Korea’s international relations may not be any less complex than its domestic challenges. On top of the agenda will be North Korea. While that will not have changed from prior administrations, Pyongyang has significantly advanced its nuclear weapon and missile programs under Kim Jong-un. As a result, the strategic situation could significantly change under the next administration should North Korea successfully deploy not only a nuclear deterrent but a viable second strike capability.

As a result, the administration may find its options for dealing with North Korea constrained, both by North Korea’s progress on its weapons programs and the policies of regional states. Relations with China have soured over the decision to deploy THAAD to defend against North Korean missiles, and China’s use of economic pressure may leave the next administration with a Scylla and Charybdis type dilemma of accepting significant economic harm or weakening South Korea’s defenses against North Korea.

Managing this situation will require close relations with the United States and Japan, both of which could be problematic if divisions over how to handle North Korea develop, or in the case of Japan historical issues complicate relations. While the Trump administration so far has been more conventional in its approach to North Korea than many foreign policy issues, Seoul and Washington will need to ensure that they do not diverge on how to handle North Korea. At the same time, there could be tension in the relationship, as the Trump administration is taking a harder position on trade and has indicated that it may review the KORUS FTA.

Whoever South Korea elects as president in May will face a more fluid domestic and international environment than prior South Korean presidents, one shaped by the impeachment and the need to enact reforms. While South Korea has gone through difficult economic times, such as the Asian Financial Crisis, or faced challenging relations with the United States or China, it is the degree and the number of challenges that South Korea may face over the next five years that make this election so consequential.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from sinano1000’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.