[Viewpoint] Toward a harmonious Korus

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[Viewpoint] Toward a harmonious Korus

The June 16 summit between President Lee and U.S. President Obama was a great success. The leaders not only developed a strong personal chemistry, but adopted a resolute stance on North Korea, demonstrating solidarity between the two countries on this vital security issue. Korea also received as strong a commitment on the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement as was possible, given the continuing difficult political context for the deal in the U.S.

Most importantly, the summit marked a turning point in the bilateral relationship, moving beyond the long-standing focus on military and security issues, and toward cooperation on a range of shared geostrategic issues.

President Lee made full use of the summit to change the nature of the alliance between the two countries. As Korea knows, for more than a half century, it has been primarily a military and security alliance. This fundamental characteristic of the Korus alliance has not changed much since the Korean War, with the U.S. paying more attention to Korea during times of an aggravated North Korean threat.

Lee seized the opportunity to break out of this mold at the summit, bringing the two countries to work together on a range of global issues of common interest such as the global financial crisis, climate change and green energy technology, and humanitarian relief. Cooperation in these areas will serve to broaden Korea’s alliance with the U.S. and thereby deepen the most important bilateral relationship Korea has.

The summit also helped elevate Korea’s standing vis-a-vis the U.S. For decades, Korea’s status has been that of a junior partner to the U.S. in Asia. But the Obama administration duly recognized Korea’s position as the world’s 13th-largest economy, its technological prowess, its coming chairmanship of the G-20 in 2010, and its contributions to security crises such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, the summit’s joint vision statement states that the two countries should stand shoulder-to-shoulder, heralding a new era in which Korea will assume greater responsibilities in the world as a full partner to the U.S. This will certainly also help enhance Korea’s stature on the world stage.

The most notable piece of unfinished business at the conclusion of the summit is the path toward U.S. ratification of the Korus FTA.

As Korea knows, presently all pending free trade agreements, including the Korus FTA, that the Obama administration inherited from its predecessor, are deeply mired in U.S. domestic politics.

The principal impediment to the Korus FTA’s passage in the U.S. lies in the deep reluctance of the major unions and their political allies on Capitol Hill to support increased auto trade with Korea while major U.S. auto producers are undergoing painful bankruptcy restructuring and cutting plenty of jobs.

Many key U.S. Democrats also believe that Korea has not done enough to open its market fully to U.S. beef. Moreover, the Obama administration has signaled in recent weeks that it will pursue top priorities in its domestic policy agenda - chiefly, health care reform - before expending political capital to advance the pending FTAs.

In fact, the Obama administration essentially declared a time-out on any new trade deals for the time being. This political reality in the U.S. suggests that the Korus FTA will likely have to wait until 2010 at the earliest for ratification.

However, even under these difficult circumstances, President Lee secured what most pundits consider important commitments on the FTA from the U.S. For one, President Obama committed to making the Korus FTA a top priority once the U.S. political environment allows it.

President Obama also committed to, in the meantime, initiating working-level consultations with Korea to find creative solutions to the remaining impediments to Korus’ passage in the U.S. This renewed commitment to the FTA by the Obama administration augurs well for its eventual passage in the U.S.

Korea must realize, however, that all FTAs are at the eye of an American political storm over trade and job loss amid the worst economic crisis in the U.S. since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The chances for its passage in 2009 are thus small.

However, if the Korus FTA is going to have any chance next year or later, much work needs to be undertaken and pursued this year to lay the groundwork for its ultimate passage in the U.S., when the overall political environment for the FTA improves.

With patience and flexibility, combined with the goodwill generated by the summit, Korea and the U.S. should then be able to complete this unfinished business.

*The writer is a senior partner at the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C.

by Sukhan Kim
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