- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Washington this week will focus on how to respond to North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests. While these are critically pressing issues, Pyongyang’s threat should not be the only topic on the two presidents’ agenda.

Presidents Obama and Lee have a great opportunity to take a step forward in bolstering our alliance and enhancing our mutual prosperity at a time when both countries’ economies are in recession and global trade flows are shrinking. They can do so by pressing for passage of the U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement (FTA) in a manner that leaves no doubt in the minds of lawmakers in both countries that this is a top priority for both leaders.

South Korea has a $1-trillion-a-year economy, and it is already our eighth-largest trading partner. But it historically has had many barriers to imports that have prevented it from becoming an even bigger market for U.S. goods and services. Two years ago, the United States concluded a high-quality trade agreement with South Korea - in fact, it is the largest trade pact our country has negotiated in 15 years. However, we have not yet had the opportunity to reap the benefits of this groundbreaking agreement for the U.S. economy.

Let’s be clear: South Korea’s market, part of a rapidly integrating Asian economy, offers great opportunities for U.S. companies. Last year, U.S. exporters shipped nearly $40 billion in manufactured and agricultural products to Korea, and in 2007, they sold nearly $13 billion in services there.

Once the FTA takes effect, 95 percent of two-way trade in consumer and electronic goods will become duty-free within three years. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. agricultural products will be duty-free immediately. The FTA provides strong legal protection that U.S. exporters and investors need to do business. It is such a good agreement that the European Union is close to concluding a similar FTA with Korea.

The FTA will boost U.S. annual exports to South Korea by $10 billion to $12 billion a year. It will tie the United States more tightly into the broader East Asian market and stimulate the U.S. economy at no fiscal cost.

U.S. domestic politics remain the only reason we have not moved forward with this deal. Some interest groups oppose any trade agreement. While we need to find ways to address legitimate concerns expressed by those who feel left behind, it makes no sense to stop measures to expand trade relations.

Congressional consideration of the FTA has slowed because of two issues: beef and autos. Since reopening its market to U.S. beef imports last summer, Korea has become the fourth-largest export market for U.S. beef. I had no difficulty enjoying a fine cut of American beef during a visit to Seoul earlier this year.

Concerns about the auto provisions have lingered in large part because of the challenges facing the U.S. auto sector. The FTA includes provisions to address the reasonable concerns of U.S. automakers about unfair standards, taxes and other restrictions in Korea’s market. Korean officials already have signaled their willingness to work with the U.S. government to find creative solutions to the auto issue so long as it does not involve reopening the already-negotiated FTA itself.

We should not allow domestic politics to get in the way of strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance at this critical time. Passing the FTA within a reasonable time frame would serve America’s foreign-policy interests and underscore our global economic leadership.

This administration understands the challenges a nuclear North Korea presents not only to both countries but to global security and stability. Exploring concrete measures to roll back North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program will no doubt top the agenda when Mr. Lee meets Mr. Obama. But we urge the leaders also to explore ways to get lawmakers in both countries to approve the FTA, reinforcing our already strong partnership and creating real benefits for American workers, farmers and businesses.

Let’s make sure not to let this opportunity slip away - too is much at stake.

Myron Brilliant is senior vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and president of the U.S.-Korea Business Council.

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