[Viewpoint]Taking stock of an enduring friendship

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[Viewpoint]Taking stock of an enduring friendship

As I prepare for my first trip ever to Korea, it occurs to me that there is little if any possibility that the long-standing friendship between our countries could ever be substantially harmed. We simply have been through too much together, and we share strong common interests and values as free democracies for our alliance ever to be split asunder.
But, as we all know, there are many variations to a friendship. And at this moment in history, ours is subject to some strains. In particular, anxieties about the prospective Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement have become acute.
In America, we have new majorities in both houses of Congress ― in both cases the party opposite President Bush has risen to power. This new majority brings to Washington no hostility toward Korea, but many of these new congressmen and senators were elected, in part, because they criticized what they see as an over-reliance by America on bilateral trade agreements. There is mounting anxiety about the U.S. trade deficit, which has reached a level that economists fear is unsustainable and represents a threat to the stability of the dollar.
In the United States, bilateral trade agreements are negotiated and ratified under a legal authority that must be renewed every five years. The current authority will expire on June 30 ― and there is very little likelihood that Congress will renew it any time soon, either this year or any time before a new president takes office in 2009.
Even if the Korea-U.S. FTA were to be finished in time this spring (before the trade authority expires), it would probably not likely win congressional approval either.
Most Americans have a positive views toward Korea and value your country as an important friend and ally. But Americans and their newly-elected Congress are also having to come to terms with a recognition that America’s commitments have become over-extended both at home and abroad, that the nation’s priorities need to be re-evaluated, and that America’s financial house needs to be put in order.
Call it pessimism if you like, but America has gone through these difficult passages before ― most recently a generation ago, in the aftermath of both Vietnam and Watergate.
At such a moment, then, in the life of a friendship, there is good reason to take stock and to consider what might be done to strengthen our critical ties.
That is the message I will be carrying during my visit to Korea.
Some of this discussion can be carried on government-to-government. Non-governmental, not-for-profit organizations are useful, too, especially for sharing ideas, forging alliances, and creating joint projects.
Then there is the private sector, which is obviously a strong force in both of our countries. As we start to realize that the free trade agreement probably will not happen, at least for several more years, it is clearly time to consider how the U.S.-Korea business relationship can be enhanced without the benefit of an FTA.
We need to remember that the lack of a free trade agreement has not prevented the volume of our two-way trade from reaching an estimated level of $80 billion in 2006 alone. The lack of an FTA has not prevented more than $30 billion in foreign direct investment from coming into Korea from the U.S. over the past ten years; nor has it prevented Hyundai from establishing a major presence in the U.S. motor vehicle market, or Boeing from selling many dozens of aircraft to Korean flag carriers.
Given the maturity of this business alliance, the business sector in Korea needs to be more pro-active in promoting and protecting our mutual interests. Korean companies generate vast benefits and opportunities not just for their fellow Koreans, but for Americans too. The private sector in Korea should undertake an organized program of outreach to highlight the fruits of our business relationship, and this in turn will encourage the successful completion of a Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
The point cannot be emphasized strongly enough that we already have much to build upon. Indeed, it can rightly be said that Korea and the United States have shared a “special relationship” ever since 1950. Our friendship was tested by fire from the very earliest days, and we have both come out stronger for it. Korea’s continuing importance as a trusted ally in a strategically important part of the world has never been greater, and that fact is reaffirmed by everybody in Washington, of whichever party.
Our friendship and mutual interests will ultimately prevail ― and our countries will grow still closer together in the future, even before the hoped-for day when a free trade agreement is finally realized.

*The writer is a former U.S. congressman and a consultant in Washington.

by Anthony J. Moffett
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