KLECKNER: Seoul on ice

The time has come to seal the deal

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The sinking of a South Korean naval vessel earlier this year has put the Korean Peninsula on a war footing. An international commission recently determined that a North Korean torpedo killed 46 South Korean sailors aboard the Cheonan.

This is a time for the United Statesto stand up for its longtime ally. The best way we can do this - and also take a concrete step that will have a real rather than symbolic impact - is for Congress to pass the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Now.

The George W. Bush administration concluded the deal with South Korean leaders in 2007. Congress promptly ignored an obligation to hold an up-or-down vote. In doing so, lawmakers ignored their own legislative rules. They also broke a promise to trade diplomats who had negotiated the deal with the expectation that Washington at least would give them a hearing.

This is no way to treat a friend.

When it comes to delays and denials, members of Congress are specialists. Yet even by Washington standards, this trade deal with an important ally has languished for too long. The three-year anniversary of its completion is at the end of this month.

President Obama has announced that he would like to see this pact approved. His administration could do more to make sure that happens. Last month, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk met with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-hoon. Mr. Kirk said he was committed to addressing the agreement’s outstanding issues and finishing the deal. Afterward, when Mr. Kim was asked if the Americans had requested specific changes that would allow the agreement to succeed, he replied: “My phone has not yet rung,” according to The Washington Times.

Would someone in Washington please pick up the phone and call our allies in Seoul?

Trade has the power to promote peace. That’s why I’ve supported small steps to bring the two Koreas together through exchanges such as the partnership at theKaesong Industrial Complex north of the demilitarized zone. The regime in Pyongyang may be one of the world’s most oppressive, but I’ve always believed that economic integration is preferable to economic isolation.

Now the limited trade ties between the two nations are severed. In the face of this crisis, the U.S.-KoreaFree Trade Agreement makes more sense than ever before from a national security perspective.

Fortunately, it also makes sense from an economic perspective. The deal would fuel exports and create thousands of jobs for Americans. One estimate says new trade activity would boost our gross domestic product by $12 billion.

Farmers and ranchers certainly would see gains. We already sell about $2 billion in food to South Korea. Under the agreement, the tariffs on half of these products would vanish immediately.

Continuing to ignore the trade agreement is a bad idea. As much as the South Koreans would like to buy more American-made goods and services, they have not neglected the rest of the world while Washingtonhas dawdled. Seoul recently completed a set of trade talks with the European Union, and it’s making rapid progress on a pact with Australia. There is talk of a Northeast Asia free-trade zone that would provide China and Japan with new advantages in selling to South Korean consumers.

If these competitors start to take market share from U.S. companies and workers, it will be a direct result of Washington’s refusal to take trade seriously. (Wasn’t it Nero who fiddled while Rome burned?)

“The U.S. runs the risk of losing the Korean market within a decade if we can’t get a free-trade agreement ratified,” said Jong-hyun Choi, minister for economic affairs for the South Korean Embassy, who met with global pork producers in Iowa last week, according to the Des Moines Register.

Many Democrats have resisted new trade measures, but not all of them. In fact, the U.S.-Korea agreement attracts strong levels of bipartisan support. Last month, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana - the two top members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Mr. Obama to press for the pact. They noted its economic benefits and also said its approval “would be considered a significant show of solidarity with a close and reliable ally.”

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