Preparing for Obama’s visit

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Preparing for Obama’s visit

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Sukhan Kim

U.S. President Barack Obama will soon arrive in Korea for his fourth visit since assuming office in 2009. On the whole, the Korea-U.S. bilateral relationship is vibrant and the bonds are strong. In the wake of the overturning of the Sewol ferry off the southwest coast, Obama immediately reassured Korea of the unwavering U.S. commitment to the country, in good times and bad, and marshaled U.S. resources to assist in the rescue and recovery operation. A deep reserve of goodwill sets the stage for Obama’s visit.

The agenda for Obama’s meeting with President Park Geun-hye is free of major controversy. The two will discuss further strengthening of the alliance, management of North Korea’s saber-rattling, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the work needed to complete the implementation of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (Korus) and to pave the way for Korea’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

However, there are several potential pitfalls that Korea must carefully manage to ensure that the meeting advances Korea’s interests and further strengthens the bilateral relationship.

First, a major impetus for Obama’s Asia trip is his goal of cementing trilateral ties between Korea, Japan, and the United States. While the recent trilateral meeting of Obama, Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in The Hague may signal a new era of cooperation among the three countries, from the U.S. perspective greater joint efforts are needed to contain North Korea and provide a regional counter-weight to China.

Korea must expect that Obama will attempt to inspire further Korean-Japanese cooperation, even if doing so means less attention paid to Korea’s legitimate historical grievances against Japan and current irritants between Korea and Abe’s government. To be sure, Korea can expect a sympathetic ear from Obama on sensitive matters related to Japan, and even that Obama will use his time in Japan to urge a more conciliatory approach on Abe’s part. Korea should, however, refrain from overemphasizing the issue and take a pragmatic, forward-looking approach that complements Obama’s vision of mutual interest and joint action.

In this regard, Korea can learn from past summits, including President George W. Bush’s visit in 2006, when President Roh Moo-hyun spent a considerable amount of time persuading the American delegation of the legitimacy of Korea’s grievances against Japan. Little came of that persuasion offensive, and time was lost addressing the formal agenda for the summit and the broader challenges that were at stake. A more balanced approach to the issue is needed this time.

To ensure a successful visit, Korea should also be prepared for some criticism from Obama with respect to Korea’s implementation of Korus, which is now entering its third year. In recent months, a growing chorus of U.S. export industries - including the Big Three auto producers - has complained that Korea is failing to uphold its Korus obligations, especially through the imposition of onerous and unjustified customs entry procedures. The politically powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce has now added its voice to the issue, urging Obama to use his visit to press Korea on Korus implementation. It is important for Korea to recognize the depth of U.S. perceptions that Korea is dragging its feet in implementing its obligations.

To compound the matter, many U.S. critics of Korus point to the increase in the U.S. trade deficit with Korea over the last two years as evidence that Korus has actually failed. Even with the general U.S. economic recovery continuing, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea last year increased from $16.6 billion in 2012 to $20.7 billion. These statistics play into the hands of the many trade skeptics in Obama’s party and will only strengthen his resolve to extract commitments from Korea during his visit.

In this regard, Korea should expect that Obama will invoke U.S. support for Korea’s possible future entry into TPP as a lever to secure short-term commitments on Korus implementation. However, approval by the U.S. Congress of a TPP agreement cannot occur before the November mid-term election due to the current absence of a Washington consensus on the process for approving trade pacts. Further, as a long-term goal, the U.S. desires Korea’s entry to further validate the TPP as the platform for Pacific Rim trade and investment relations. Korea, therefore, possesses more leverage than it realizes as TPP negotiations continue.

In the short term, however, Korea must find a productive solution to U.S. concerns about Korus implementation as they threaten to intensify and complicate other Korean initiatives, such as securing more U.S. work visas for highly trained Koreans.

In particular, Korea should quickly find a way to smooth the entry of U.S. goods formally guaranteed access by Korus With concerted action on Korus implementation, Korea can remove an irritant in the bilateral relationship, redirect it towards its full potential, and shift the focus to the next major trade goal - entry into TPP.

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

By Sukhan Kim



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