The official US request for a meeting on the Korea-US free trade agreement should convince President Moon Jae-in and his aides that the time has come for them to stop being evasive and take on the issue squarely.
Most of all, they should no longer try to play with words. The letter -- written by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and addressed to Trade Minister Joo Hyung-hwan -- did not use the word “renegotiation,” but made clear the US’ intention to revise the five-year-old trade pact.
Lighthizer said that the US side wanted to “start the process of negotiating to remove barriers to US trade” and consider needed “amendments and modifications” to the agreement. It is crystal clear what the US government wants to do.
No doubt, the US position is in line with the “America First” policy of US President Donald Trump, who had called the Korea-US FTA a “horrible deal” and “disaster” that only kills American jobs and increases the trade imbalance against the US’ favor. He heralded a US move to amend the pact by preaching his point during the recent summit talks with Moon in Washington.
Nevertheless, Korean officials continue to play down what the US request means, perhaps so as not to give the impression that they were giving in to US pressure. Trade Ministry officials insisted that what the US side wants is not a full “renegotiation.”
The officials’ response may well reflect the position of Moon, who had been defensive and evasive about the US move to amend the trade pact.
After their summit talks, Trump said that the US was “renegotiating” the trade deal with South Korea. Given Trump’s usually freewheeling use of words, there is the possibility that he was simply careless in failing to distinguish renegotiation from other terms like revision or amendment. Nevertheless, altering the pact has become a fait accompli.
But Moon and his aides, including Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, refuse to admit this reality, insisting that there was no agreement on renegotiation of the FTA.
Lighthizer’s letter is clear evidence that whether Moon gave consent or not did not matter. What he needs to do now is to ready relevant officials to prepare for tough talks with their US counterparts.
If what Trump and US officials mentioned is any guide, the Korean officials should brace for US demand to -- among other things -- further lower Korea’s import barriers for American cars. At the same time, Korean steelmakers will certainly face higher export barriers in the US market.
For her part, Korea need not be solely defensive. They could emphasize that the pact benefits the US side too. For instance, sales of US cars in Korea jumped 37.1 percent since the trade pact went into force in 2012, while exports of Korean cars increased 12.4 percent. Also considered should be that Korea suffers a deficit in the services sectors and that Korea is a major purchaser from the US defense industry.
It would be better for the Seoul government to take advice from relevant industries before sitting down with US officials. This calls on Moon to speed up filling in related top government posts, including that of trade minister.
Moon and government officials also need to make sure the upcoming talks on the Korea-US FTA not fan anti-American sentiment in South Korea.
Some Koreans tend to react sensitively to what they see as pressure or unfair demand from Washington. Just remember the fierce anti-American protests when the two countries were negotiating the free trade pact.
Trade issues between the two countries are never something that can be tackled easily, but they should not have negative impact on their security alliance and overall relationship. The escalating crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats alone does not allow any room for cracks in the Seoul-Washington ties.