Stop frittering, Obama

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Stop frittering, Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama pledged that he “will not just simply pass along a free trade agreement [with Korea] that existed before.” When he met AFL-CIO leaders last Wednesday, Obama promised that “we ought to have rules in place that make sure that trade works for everybody here in America.” He added that before he visits Korea in the fall, “we’d present an agreement that made sense for the auto industry, made sense for the beef industry.”

Max Baucus, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, said, “Korea should remove its baseless ban on U.S. beef and beef products regardless of [the cattle’s] ages.”

In June, the presidents of the two countries agreed to iron out disputed issues by this fall. Obama raised our expectations for the FTA when he said, “The new discussion is not renegotiation, but adjustment.” Recently, however, U.S. officials ratcheted up aggressive remarks criticizing the FTA. They seem to have an intention to pressure Korea in advance before the working-level talks that will begin from September.

The U.S. may demand that Korea lift the age restriction on beef imports and the U.S. should have safeguards against car imports. Beef imports, however, are a very sensitive issue as we went through candle light vigils against the resumption of U.S. beef imports in 2008. Strictly speaking, beef imports are not a subject for the Korea-U.S. FTA. As both countries had already agreed, it is necessary for both countries to deal prudently with the age limit restrictions when Korean consumers regain their confidence in U.S. beef. In the case of cars, the problem is whether U.S. cars have a competitive edge in our market. Though Korea can endeavor to increase car imports, it is practically useless if U.S. cars fall behind European or Japanese cars in terms of quality and marketing.

Before November midterm elections, it will be very hard for Obama to disregard demands from labor unions and farmers, who are his supporters. However, the most urgent thing for the U.S. administration to do is to persuade laborers and farmers. Rather than pressuring Korea, the U.S. administration, first of all, should make cattle farmers and auto labor unions understand the reality.

The U.S. administration should avoid the temptation of making Korea-U.S. FTA a sacrifice for midterm elections. We frittered away three years following the agreement between both countries on the FTA deal. As we can observe in the FTA between Korea and the European Union, the later the FTA takes effect, the less the U.S. can benefit from its benefits. The U.S. should go back to the original intention of the FTA; free and reciprocal trade.
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