Can Obama Save Stalled South Korean Trade Agreement?
He faces congressional and industrial opposition at home
President Obama and South Korean officials are struggling to push forward a free-trade agreement that has stalled due to domestic opposition in the U.S. Obama faces a difficult climate in Congress, where Democrats typically oppose free-trade agreements, and the rising Republican caucus is increasingly hostile to cutting a deal of any kind with the president, even one that advances conservative free-trade causes. If it passes, the deal in its current form would expand President George W. Bush's South Korean trade deal and seek to increase U.S. exports of beef and automobiles. It would be the largest U.S. free-trade agreement since President Bill Clinton approved the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. Here's what observers have to say about the deal and its prospects.
- Obama's Push for Raising Exports, Growing Jobs The New York Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg explains, "Mr. Obama has made doubling American exports over the next five years a centerpiece of his economic agenda. As he travels through Asia, in the wake of midterm elections that focused on voter discontent with the economy, he is trying both to promote job creation and to repair ties with the American business community. The Korean trade pact is a priority for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose president, Thomas J. Donohue, has said he can round up the Congressional votes to get it approved."
- Beef Issue Increasingly Contentious Reuters' Jack Kim writes, "Kwon Young-min, an expert on free trade negotiations at Myongji University in Seoul, said if autos were the only sticking point, a deal could be in reach, but any insistence by Washington to take up the issue of South Korea's restrictive import of U.S. beef would mean more complications. 'Beef is a very serious issue, something that President Lee will be unable to give away even if he wanted to, given the incredible impact of what he went through two years ago.' Lee's months-old administration was thrown into political paralysis in 2008 because of big street protests after he accepted U.S. demands for greater beef market opening."
- Failure Would Be Major Blow to U.S. Foreign Policy Foreign Policy's Phil Levy warns, "The implications extend far beyond selling Buicks in Busan. ... The debacle in Seoul is a slap in the face of a critical U.S. ally in a critical region, and it will cast doubt on U.S. trade promises in other negotiations elsewhere. But if an American president loses his credibility, the damage spreads beyond the narrow confines of economic deals and Northeast Asia. ... The breakdown could not have come at a worse time. The United States has been working to assert its relevance in Asia. Concerns about protectionist pressures amidst economic troubles raise the stakes in bolstering the global trading system."
- Korea's Environmentalist Trade Barriers National Review's Stephen Spruiell writes, "U.S. automakers, their unions, and their allies in government — including most Democrats and Barack Obama — think Korea’s fuel-economy and environmental standards are too high. They are arguing that these standards act as a non-tariff barrier to cars and trucks made in U.S. factories, because, gosh darn it, we just don’t make cars and trucks that clean and green over here." South Korea's higher environmental standards make it more difficult for the U.S. to sell its cars there.