Foreign and Defense Policy, Asia

Reading the Korean Tea Leaves

This weekend, I was impressed—as was Claude Barfield—by the Obama administration’s bold declaration that it would soon conclude the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). The administration promised an agreement on substance with South Korea by November, then a submission to Congress soon after.

This was remarkable for an administration that had previously shied away from the enormous political obstacles that trade policy posed. In the case of KORUS, there were questions whether the Koreans would be willing to renegotiate, whether organized labor would relax its opposition to the deal, and whether key opponents in Congress—in particular, some House Democrats—would come around.

Surely, though, the administration had tended to all of these issues before making such a momentous public announcement. They must have had a plan, right? Here are the early returns:

Sander Levin (D-Michigan), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee:  KORUS “does not effectively address the regulatory and tax barriers that have led to one-way trade and hurt our industrial sector as well as kept out our beef … The date targeted by the president can be met only if the outstanding issues are fully addressed with enforceable commitments.”

Richard Trumka, president, AFL-CIO: “We remain deeply concerned about and strongly opposed to the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement … This flawed agreement is the last thing working people need.”

Louise Slaughter (D-New York), chair of the House Rules Committee: “I am surprised that the administration would try to slide this poorly written trade deal past the American public when Congress has already said that the deal is not good for our economy or workers.”

Mike Michaud (D-Maine), head of the House Trade Working Group (key critics of existing free trade agreements): “This is another flawed NAFTA-style trade agreement negotiated by the Bush administration for the benefit of big corporations and at the expense of the American worker … President Obama’s commitment to fixing the agreement is laudable if it involves reopening the agreement and fixing not only the market-access issues for American beef and car exports, but also the fundamental imbalances in our previously-negotiated free trade agreements.”

So the critics are on board only if there is a substantial reworking of the agreement. How likely is that? From today’s JoongAng Daily: “Kim Jong-hoon, the trade minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said yesterday that there would be no renegotiations or changes made to the original Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement. Kim’s remarks underscored that Korea was in no mood for further compromises. ‘Taking just one period—one comma—out of the agreement will mean a complete revision. This will not happen,’ he told reporters at a press briefing.”

If the administration does, in fact, have a plan to see through its commitment on KORUS, it is clearly a dramatic one that will involve last-minute heroics, swooping in to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat. It should be something to see.

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