Politics behind trade

Korea Times, Seoul

Politics behind trade

US could suffer big loss, going after small gain

11 August 2010

When politicians and bureaucrats make frequent remarks about the welfare and interests of citizens, one senses another election season is coming. That seems to be the case with the United States these days.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk urged Korea last week to come to the negotiation table instead of making excuses for the unfriendly attitude and environment of the Congress. He stressed there is no proper time to complete a ``bad deal for U.S. citizens.”

These are hardly the words to come from an official, who seems to have neglected his principal duty of persuading lawmakers to approve the free trade agreement signed more than three years ago. Governmental accords can be revised if necessary, but Representative Kirk’s office has yet to even make its formal demands to their Korean counterparts.

The political comment appeared to be aimed at both appeasing some disgruntled legislators while beefing up pressure on Korean negotiators.

Or he might have felt the need to more actively keep pace with his boss. While meeting with labor leaders, President Obama said he would not let the existing Korea-U.S. FTA pass as it is not in U.S. workers’ interests. Politically, such a pledge may be inevitable especially for a leader whose support base is labor-centered and when mid-term elections are just three months away. Diplomatically, however, it was a big disappointment to a major ally.

Most difficult to understand were the demands of 109 U.S. Democrats, who recently called for a far wider revision of the so-called KORUS FTA, to overhaul the U.S. trade policy and reduce the trade deficit. But even the U.S. International Trade Commission says the bilateral deal _ in its present form _ would increase America’s GDP by up to $12 billion and add 70,000 jobs a year. On the other hand, Korea’s trade surplus with the U.S. will likely halve to around $5 billion over the next decade.

One might wonder why Seoul is so positive about the FTA with America then. This is mainly because the Korean industrialists are confident of overcoming such statistical adversity by making the most of the world’s largest market. And they want to sharpen competitive edge in service sectors by competing with American firms on a level playground, although not a small part of these is feared to be wishful thinking.

But at least this is the attitude the U.S. industries, especially automakers, should try to emulate. Unlike their whining, Korean officials and motorists have no reason to discriminate the made-in-U.S.A. vehicles if only they are as fuel-efficient and economically-priced as well as provide good after-sales services as many of their European and Japanese counterparts. An FTA is not a sufficient but just a necessary condition for fair trade in realistic terms.

Senator Max Baucus, hailing from the beef belt state of Montana, said ``No deal is better than a bad deal,” expressing his discontent with Seoul’s refusal to import beef from cattle older than 30 months. He seemed to be exactly representing how many Koreans were feeling about the controversial pact.

And not a few Koreans suspect their own government is swallowing the unfavorable deal as the price of its undue diplomatic dependency on its biggest ally.

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