Harris pushes Assembly to ratify pacts

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Harris pushes Assembly to ratify pacts

The U.S. ambassador to Seoul, in a meeting with the National Assembly speaker on Tuesday, requested swift ratification of a defense cost-sharing agreement currently under negotiation and a revised version of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA), multiple sources said on Wednesday.

The two deals are sensitive points of negotiation between the two countries.

Multiple National Assembly sources said that Ambassador Harry Harris asked lawmakers to hold interest on these two pacts and urged the National Assembly to ratify them as soon as possible.

In response, Speaker Moon Hee-sang nodded and said, “I understand,” according to the sources.

Seoul is currently negotiating with Washington on the renewal of a multiyear, cost-sharing agreement for stationing U.S. troops in Korea.

The Special Measures Agreement (SMA), a five-year deal under the Status of Forces Agreement, dictates what Korea will contribute to the non-personnel costs associated with keeping U.S. troops in the country. Since 1991, the two countries have conducted nine rounds of negotiations, and the current deal is set to expire on Dec. 31.

Since March, the two sides have held five rounds of discussions, and the United States has been demanding that Seoul pay more of the total amount, including by citing the cost of deploying U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, something Washington covers currently. Seoul has argued that the SMA’s original purpose is to maintain U.S. troops in the South and does not cover strategic assets temporarily deployed by the United States.

Lawmakers expressed concern about the ambassador’s request for swift ratification, since both sides are still negotiating on the agreement.

One high-ranking lawmaker in the ruling Democratic Party, who asked not to be named, told the Joongang Ilbo over the phone on Wednesday, “Recently, we received a report from the government that the U.S. side has been making excessive demands. It seems that the United States also knows that the deal is not possible without the National Assembly’s consent, so it seems to be making an all-around move.”

Referring to the ongoing SMA talks, the lawmaker said, “Working-level negotiations have not even concluded yet, so it is very inappropriate for [the ambassador] to raise this issue at a point where we have not made any progress.”

But one National Assembly source familiar with the meeting characterized Harris’ comment as a “general remark” that “did not go into any details.”

Similarly, Seoul and Washington agreed on a revised version of their FTA in March after months of negotiations, but it has not been signed yet.

U.S. President Donald Trump has called for a renegotiation of the agreement, which went into effect on March 2012, claiming it has caused massive trade deficits for the United States. He has threatened to impose tariffs of up to 25 percent on imported cars and auto parts, two key Korean exports, on national security grounds under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act.

Lawmakers in Korea might be hesitant to ratify the revised FTA unless Washington exempts Seoul from potential auto tariffs.

The floor leaders of the five biggest political parties visited Washington last month and said they met with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. In the meeting, they conveyed that imposing auto tariffs under Section 232 would double Korea’s burden because the renegotiated FTA already includes U.S. demands on auto imports. The Moon Jae-in administration has also been trying to persuade Washington to exempt Seoul from extra tariffs.

Amid concerns that Harris’ request to the National Assembly might influence the government’s negotiations, one diplomatic source with knowledge of the matter said, “The two agreements require ratification from the National Assembly, so such procedures are also leveraging power for us. While the government might match the United States’ requests, the National Assembly could put the brakes on them and be a buffer against excessive demands from the United States.”

BY HA JUN-HO [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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