South Korea trade deal produces bleak first-year results

Some say it is too early to judge; others aren't so sure

WASHINGTON — More than a year after it took effect, a highly touted trade deal with South Korea has failed to produce as expected for the U.S.: Exports are down, imports are up, and the trade deficit with the Asian economic powerhouse has ballooned.

In Washington state, where global trade now is linked to 2 of every 5 jobs, trade backers are happy: Exports of aircraft and parts to Korea rose by more than 75 percent last year, and Koreans are gobbling up more of the state's prized cherries and apples.

But across the nation, the picture looks far bleaker. Overall, U.S. exports to Korea from March 2012 to this February fell to $42 billion, a 6 percent decline from the previous one-year period, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. During the same time, Korean imports increased by 4 percent.

The U.S. trade deficit with Korea went from $13.2 billion at the end of 2011 to nearly $16.6 billion at the end of last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Boosters of the pact say it's way too soon to know how it will pan out. "To judge it after a year and say it's a success or failure is a little bit premature, certainly," said Eric Schinfeld, the president of the Washington Council on International Trade in Seattle.

The deal with South Korea is one of three free-trade agreements, including ones with Colombia and Panama, Congress passed in 2011 at the urging of President Barack Obama. The Korean deal, by far the largest and offering U.S. businesses the most potential in selling goods overseas, took effect in March 2012.

On Capitol Hill, some are sounding alarms. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raised the issue before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee earlier this month during a confirmation hearing for Export-Import Bank President Fred Hochberg. She told Hochberg that his job is to increase exports and reduce the trade deficit.

"Just based on the math, something is not working very well for the United States on the Korea free-trade agreement, and it seems to be working at cross-purposes with what it is that you're trying to accomplish," she said.

Opponents hope that unhappiness with the early results of the Korean trade deal will lead more members of Congress to look skeptically at free-trade proposals, making it more difficult for Obama to win approval for his Trans-Pacific Partnership. That proposal, which is being negotiated by 11 nations, would seek to expand trade throughout the Pacific Rim.


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