It’s so much better when our two countries can stand united, as they appeared to do at the G-20 summit in Toronto. As President Obama left the meetings, he promised to make an aggressive push to finish the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which has languished for three years.
The main reason to support the pact is economic: By boosting exports to South Korea, the deal will create jobs here at home. Yet there’s more at stake as well.
The sinking of a South Korean naval vessel earlier this year has put the Korean peninsula on war footing. An international commission recently determined that a North Korean torpedo killed 46 South Korean sailors aboard the Cheonan.
This is a time for the United States to stand up for its longtime ally. The best way we can do this–and also take a concrete step that will have a real rather than symbolic impact–is for Congress to pass the U.S.-Korea FTA.
The Bush administration concluded the deal with South Korean leaders in 2007. Congress promptly ignored an obligation to hold an up-or-down vote. In doing so, lawmakers ignored their own legislative rules. They also broke a promise to trade diplomats who had negotiated the deal with the expectation that Washington at least would give them a hearing.
This is no way to treat a friend.
When it comes to delays and denials, members of Congress are specialists. Yet even by D.C. standards, this trade deal with an important ally has been neglected for too long.
Trade has the power to promote peace. That’s why I’ve always supported small steps to bring the two Koreas together through exchanges such as the partnership at the Kaesong industrial complex north of the DMZ. The regime in Pyongyang may be one of the world’s most oppressive, but I’ve always believed that economic integration is preferable to economic isolation.
Now the limited trade ties between the two nations are severed. In the face of this crisis, the U.S.-Korea FTA makes more sense than ever before from a national-security perspective.
Fortunately, it also makes sense from an economic perspective. The deal would fuel exports and create thousands of jobs for Americans. One estimate says that new trade activity would boost our GDP by $12 billion.
Farmers and ranchers certainly would see gains. We already sell about $2 billion in food to South Korea. Under the agreement, the tariffs on half of these products would vanish immediately.
Continuing to ignore the trade agreement is a bad idea. As much as the South Koreans would like to buy more American-made goods and services, they have not forgotten the rest of the world while Washington dawdles. Seoul recently completed a set of trade talks with the European Union and it’s making rapid progress on a pact with Australia. There is talk of a Northeast Asia free-trade zone that would provide China and Japan with new advantages in selling to South Korean consumers.
If these competitors start to take market share from U.S. companies and workers, it will be a direct result of Washington’s refusal to take trade seriously. And once we lose it, it’s hard to get it back!
“The U.S. runs the risk of losing the Korean market within a decade if we can’t get a free-trade agreement ratified,” said Jong-hyun Choi, Minister for Economic Affairs for the South Korean Embassy, who met with global pork producers in Iowa last week, according to the Des Moines Register.
Many Democrats have resisted new trade measures, but not all of them. In fact, the U.S.-Korea agreement attracts strong levels of bipartisan support. Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and Republican senator Dick Lugar of Indiana–the two top members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–recently urged Obama to press for the pact. They noted its economic benefits and also said its approval “would be considered a significant show of solidarity with a close and reliable ally.”
Obama has talked up trade, but so far his talk has not amounted to action. He came into office promising that his leadership would improve America’s standing in the world. Right now, that means pushing for an economically responsible trade deal that would help a steadfast ally in a moment of crisis.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org