The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has been in force for two years.  That is too short a time to declare it a success or a failure for U.S. agricultural producers or Korean consumers.  What the trade over these two years does show is that favorable market access does not guarantee that trade will occur.  That depends on willing buyers and sellers operating in a competitive market place.

The U.S. already was Korea’s 49 million consumers’ top supplier of agriculture products totaling $7.57 billion in 2011.  According to the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office (USTR), almost two-thirds of Korea’s agricultural imports by value from the U.S. became tariff free upon entry into force of the agreement.  These include wheat, corn, soybeans for crushing, whey for feed use, hides, skins, cotton, cherries, pistachios, almonds, orange juice, grape juice, and wine.

Other farm products benefit from immediate duty-free access within new tariff-rate quotas (TRQs) including skim and whole milk powder, whey for food use, cheese, barley, popcorn, soybeans for food use, dehydrated and table potatoes, honey, and hay.  U.S. farm products benefiting from expanded market opportunities with 5-year tariff phase outs include grapefruit, a broad range of processed food products, chocolate, sweet corn, alfalfa, and sausages.  Most of the other increases in market access did not occur in the first two years of the FTA.

The 40 percent tariff on beef products is reduced in equal installment over 15 years with a quantity safeguard that grows 2 percent per year.  Beef offal tariffs of 18 and 27 percent also decline over 15 years with no quantity safeguards.  Tariffs of 22.5 and 25.0 percent on more than 90 percent of pork products will be removed by 2016.  Tariffs on fresh pork bellies and other miscellaneous fresh cuts are subject to a safeguard and will be phased out over 10 years. Tariffs on chicken cuts, including frozen legs, will decline from 20 percent to zero over 10 years except for frozen breast and wings, which will decline over 12 years.

Dairy products have expanded TRQs and tariff phase outs of 10-15 years.  Fruits and vegetables have various combinations of immediate tariff reductions and phase outs over time which expands market access over 5-10 years.  Rice access is unchanged by the FTA and continues to be based on the WTO minimum access arrangement.

Calendar year 2011 was the last full year before the FTA came into force on March 15, 2012, but was not a typical year.  According to USDA data,  U.S. exports of $7.57 billion were record large and far exceeded the previous record year of 2008 at $6.06 billion and 2012 exports of $6.64 billion.  The three-year average of U.S. exports in 2009, 2010 and 2011 was $5.93 billion.  U.S. exports of $5.77 billion in 2013 were only slightly below the three-year average before implementation of the FTA.

Most of the decline in U.S. exports from 2011 to 2013 was due to one commodity – corn.  Corn exports were $1.82 billion in 2011 and declined to $93 million in 2013, a 95 percent decline.  Most of the corn imported from the U.S. in calendar year 2013 would have come from the 2012 corn crop.  That crop was severely hurt by drought and total U.S. corn exports were only 735 million bushels that marketing year, less than half of exports a year earlier and less than a third of the record exports in the 2007 marketing year.   Corn prices averaged almost $7.00 per bushel ($270 per metric ton) at the farm level in the U.S.  Korean buyers sought alternative supplies of corn and alternative grains for livestock feed.

Volatility in corn trade with Korea in recent years has been normal.  Exports were valued at $830 million in 2007, increased to $2.15 billion in 2008 and declined to $1.11 billion in 2009.  Trade increased to $1.42 billion in 2010 before reaching $1.82 billion in 2011.  Corn trade declined to $610 million in 2012.  According to the U.S. Agricultural Attaché in Seoul, the U.S. supplied the majority of the corn imported by Korea in the 2007/08 – 2010/11 marketing years (July-June) and about half of the imported in 2011/12.  U.S. corn was a small minority of imports in the 2012/13 marketing year.  The U.S. will supply about a third of Korean corn imports in the 2013/14 marketing year, with most of that from the large, lower-priced 2013 corn crop delivered in the first six month of 2014.  The recent announcement of a corn sale by the U.S. to Korea indicates that the market recognizes the availability of larger supplies at competitive prices.

Beef was the second largest U.S. export product to Korea in value in calendar 2011 at $686 million.   That was a recent year high and up from $517 million in 2010.  Beef exports declined to $609 million in 2013.  Pork was the third largest export item in 2011 at $497 million, also a recent high year and almost double the previous high of $284 million in 2008.  U.S. pork exports in 2013 declined to $276 million, comparable to the years prior to 2011 and 2012.

Some horticultural product exports had increases from 2011 to 2013.  Fresh fruit increased from $254 million to $356 million and fruit and vegetable juices almost doubled from $49 million to $92 million.  Dairy products increased from $222 million to $301 million and tree nuts went from $199 million to $300 million.  Prepared food grew from $216 million to $270 million, while processed vegetables increased from $95 million to $134 million.

The U.S. also imports some agricultural products from Korea.  According to USDA, in 2011 Korea exported $456 million of agricultural products to the U.S.  By 2013, that had grown to $558 million. The largest category both years was other consumer products at $152 million in 2011 and $188 million in 2013.  Other edible fish and seafood was the second largest at $109 million and $122 million.

Korea is a valuable market for U.S. producers, but one they must compete for based on price and quality.  The bulk commodity end of the market will be volatile because the Koreans are price conscious buyers.  In addition to corn, that includes wheat at $340 million of trade in 2013, soybeans at $280 million, cotton at $175 million and distiller’s grains at $126 million.  The intermediate and consumer-oriented markets which the FTA opens over time have the potential to be much more stable.

Other exporters see the importance of this market.  Korea has FTAs with the EU, Chile, India, Peru, Singapore and the ten countries of ASEAN.  It recently announced an agreement with Canada and is negotiating for about ten more FTAs.  The U.S. has access to the Korean market, but so do competing suppliers.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade &Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter |Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.