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Seoul vows to deter steel tariffs at all costs

South Korea’s top policymakers are taking all efforts this week to lift the US President Donald Trump administration’s incoming tariff on steel imports, which is slated to take effect on March 23 and consequently deliver a heavy blow to local steelmakers and the nation’s export-reliant economy.

Also, in relation to the increasing level of trade protectionism and tariff retaliation around the globe, they have gestured at soon joining a comprehensive free trade partnership in the Pacific region.

“Concerning the US tariffication (on steel imports), the (South Korean) government shall devote all its energy through every available channel,” Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon said Monday in a meeting of economy-related ministers.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon (right) and Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong on Monday attend the meeting of economy-related ministers at Seoul Government Complex. (Yonhap)
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon (right) and Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong on Monday attend the meeting of economy-related ministers at Seoul Government Complex. (Yonhap)

Seoul’s top financial official earlier sent out a letter to his US counterpart, US Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin, claiming that the tariff measure may be regarded as a negative signal for the Korea-US alliance.

The two financial chiefs are slated to meet at the Group of 20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting in Buenos Aires next week.

Minister Kim’s face-to-face talk with Mnuchin is likely to be the last chance for South Korea to evade the tariff blast.

On Thursday, Trump signed an order to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports, citing national security concerns. The order is to be effectuated on March 23, until when trade partner states may engage in negotiations.

“The president can do exemptions and my expectation is there may be some other countries that he considers in the next two weeks,” Mnuchin said in an earlier interview with CNBC, leaving room for talks.

So far, Canada and Mexico have steered clear of the tariffication and Australia is likely to follow suit.

Prospects, however, remain dim for Seoul, as neither Trump nor any of his key economic officials have specifically mentioned the possibility of exemption for Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Amid the pressing timeline, Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong once again headed for Washington on Monday on his third outreach visit over the last two weeks.

The trade chief will focus on persuading US trade and industry officials that South Korean steelmakers’ $5.7 billion investment has created some 33,000 new jobs in the US, according to officials of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

While taking last-minutes efforts with Washington, Seoul‘s government also made gestures to increase its participation in a leading trade order in the Pacific region.

“We shall make the decision on joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership within the first half of the year,” Finance Minister Kim said.

The trade partnership, formerly known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, currently has 11 signatories, including Japan and Canada.

Even with the withdrawal of Washington, the CPTPP is to become one of the largest regional economic communities in the Pacific zone, once ratification processes are complete.

”With the inter-Korean summit coming up in April and the meeting of President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in May, our country faces a pivotal period,” Kim added.

“Considering the heightened expectations on peninsular peace and prosperity, all government ministries should cooperate in responding to domestic and external variables.”

By Bae Hyun-jung (