The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Lippert downplays Trump concerns on FTA

By 줄리 잭슨 (Julie Jackson)

Published : Jan. 9, 2017 - 16:06

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With the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump set for Jan. 20, economic tensions are high in South Korea, as the new administration might make revisions to the current Korea-US Free Trade Agreement.

During his election campaign, Trump publically criticized the agreement, referring to it as “catastrophic” and “unfair” to the US, and claiming it took away jobs from Americans.

However, US Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert said he remains positive about the future prospects of economic relations between the two countries, citing the already strong foundation that mutually benefits both sides. The deal was implemented on March 15, 2012.

“I’m not going to prejudge or get into the decisions based on the president-elect (Trump), but look, the bottom line is that what we’ve seen over the past several years is ... positive benefits on both sides on (the) KORUS FTA,” said Ambassador Lippert, who is also honorary chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, during a joint interview with AMCHAM Chairman James Kim, in Seoul on Friday.

“You look at US investment in Korea, and that number is very high. You look at our trade volume that’s gone up over time. You look at service sector trade that’s been incredibly beneficial for the United States ... there’s a whole litany of data,” Lippert said.

He is expected to end his 27-month tenure here at the end of this month and return to Washington.

US Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert (right) and GM Korea CEO and AMCHAM Korea Chairman James Kim speak during a joint interview at the IFC building in Yeouido on Friday. (AMCHAM) US Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert (right) and GM Korea CEO and AMCHAM Korea Chairman James Kim speak during a joint interview at the IFC building in Yeouido on Friday. (AMCHAM)

“The good news is, the relationship -- between the United States and Korea -- is as strong as it’s ever been. So there is a strong foundation on which to build. The second thing I would say is, because of that relationship, there are great institutional mechanisms to drive and manage a change in the alliance, in the relationship. And you want change ... the relationship looks a lot different than it did 60 years ago. It has to be dynamic.”

The Korean-US economic relationship is not only preparing to face uncertainties with the inauguration of the new US president; it will also soon be welcoming a new US ambassador to Korea and new South Korean president.

The Korea Development Institute projects that the renegotiation of the Korea-US free trade agreement and the loss of tariff concessions may result in upwards of $26.9 billion in lost exports and roughly 240,000 lost jobs by 2021, leading to heightened concerns amid the economic and political changes in the near future.

AMCHAM Chairman Kim said, “When it comes to the US and Korea, it really has to be about win-win. ... And this is where both parties have to understand what the facts are.”

“The way I look at it is, there were a lot of comments made during a very heated election cycle. And right now, this is a starting point,” he added. “I think there’s going to be a calming of nerves, a lot of things could happen. But at the same time, because President-elect Trump is a business person, I personally believe that pragmatism will prevail.”

“Let’s not forget all the large Korean companies that have set up shop in the US. Big Korean companies, because of KORUS, they understand that they need to also invest in the US. So we are talking about significant jobs (for) Americans being hired by Korean corporations today.”

Despite concerns regarding the future of Korea-US relations, Lippert referred to the implementation of KORUS as proceeding in a “robust” manner.

Over the years, the free trade agreement has drastically increased investment, as well as trade and service sector cooperation between the countries, with the US being Korea’s biggest financial investor.

The US-South Korea trade agreement opens Korea’s $580 billion services market to American companies, especially in areas where US small businesses are particularly competitive, including software publishing communications technology services, according to the Office of US Trade Representative.

According to the ambassador, the next phase for the business sector is to focus its sights on creating fair, predictable and transparent regulatory reform as well as trying to attract more investment interests from both sides of the Pacific.

“There are tough times here in Korea, in terms of some the economic issues ... but first of all, remember, you (Koreans) are the envy of the world,” said Lippert. “What is amazing is, in my travels, when I had other jobs in the US government, I often went to Africa, to Latin America, and I can’t tell you how many times I got the question: ‘How did the Koreans do it?’”

“I think remember that you are, one, in a good place, two, have just experienced over the last 30 to 40 years, the most spectacular economic and political development story in the history of the entire world,” he said, adding that he is confident Koreans will remain resilient as they possess a mentality to “always figure it out.”

By Julie Jackson (