SEOL: Talks starting Friday to amend a U.S.-South Korean trade deal must balance President Donald Trump’s domestic agenda against the need to contain a nuclear armed North Korea and will have to be completed swiftly, officials from both sides told Reuters.
The U.S goods trade deficit with South Korea has doubled since the 2012 signing of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). Almost 90 percent of the 2016 shortfall of $27.6 billion came from the auto sector, an issue the United States is expected to press hard in the Washington talks. A quick deal could give Trump his first trade victory at a time when NAFTA negotiations are dragging on without agreement and pressure on China to change trade practices has yielded little progress. The talks, led by Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Michael Beeman and Yoo Myung-hee, director general for FTA negotiations at South Korea’s trade ministry, begin at a time of heightened tensions with Pyongyang. A trade ministry official in Seoul said South Korea was waiting for Washington’s formal proposals and substantial negotiations would not take place on Friday over a deal Trump has repeatedly threatened to scrap. “The U.S. brought up lowering non-tariff barriers, especially for their auto industry. At the moment, we are not sure whether the U.S. will ask that but we will be prepared (for the U.S. demand),” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the press.
A top priority for the Americans is maintaining a 25 percent tariff on Korean pickup truck imports, which was meant to have been phased out from 2019 under the current deal, according to a U.S. official and a South Korean car industry source. South Korea has two major automakers, Hyundai and Kia, both of which are heavily reliant on exports due to the small size of their domestic market. Critics charge that South Korea discriminates against imports with a range of non-tariff barriers. South Korean auto companies believe that Washington will also seek to increase the 25,000-vehicle per U.S. automaker threshold for U.S. car shipments to South Korea that can enter the country without meeting Seoul’s domestic industry regulations.
The official at a South Korea auto company, who was not authorized to speak to the media, also said the United States was interested in easing Seoul’s vehicle emissions targets. These are viewed as discriminating against U.S. autos.