- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2011

The United States and South Korea have reached an accord that improves our pending trade agreement, better known as KORUS. Now, with this new accord in hand, the Obama administration is slated to enter the full fray of congressional trade politics for the first time. It brings a strong hand to the table. After more than a decade of division on trade, we have an opportunity for this Congress to move forward a significant trade agreement that reflects the priorities and values of both parties and all Americans.

Building stronger ties to a market as large and prosperous as South Korea’s, strategically placed in Asia’s rising center of commerce, is in both our economic and security interests. If approved, KORUS will constitute the biggest bilateral trade agreement in close to two decades. It can make permanent the gains progressives have made since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the enforcement of our trade laws and the structure of trade agreements themselves and position us to continue building on that success.

Unlike NAFTA and the Central America Free Trade Agreement, the KORUS agreement includes strong safeguards to protect workers and the environment. It is a historic step forward, which places these protections directly in the four corners of the treaty, not in side agreements. Because of the size of the economies involved, it takes to the next level the success we have seen with the Peru Free Trade Agreement, that our demands for the right to organize, for human rights protections and higher environmental standards can be met. And in Korea, we have a willing partner. As progressives, we should recognize, consolidate and lay rightful claim to these improvements, won through a long and difficult campaign to reshape the trade consensus. Further, real concessions on the Korean side for fair treatment for American auto imports and continued improvements in the treatment of our beef exports will ensure that no American industry is left behind.

On the security front, KORUS demonstrates the United States’ commitment to our South Korean allies and to maintaining a robust economic presence in Asia at a time when North Korean brinkmanship and the rise of China have caused some to question our staying power. The message we will send by approving KORUS will resonate in every Asian capital: The United States remains a Pacific power and will nurture our relationships in the Asia-Pacific region. That is a message we need to send not as Democrats or Republicans, but as a country.

Obviously, some good friends on our side of the aisle remain unconvinced that KORUS is a good deal. Skepticism about whether or not trade benefits working Americans permeates our politics. And this issue is no academic exercise. We have walked the empty floors of closed manufacturing plants and heard from workers who rightfully ask where their jobs have gone or question whether the jobs politicians promised would replace them will ever materialize. There’s no denying that globalization and increased flows of trade and capital have left whole communities feeling anxious.

But we also have walked the floors of refurbished plants that are the new manufacturing facilities producing the world’s building blocks for the green economy. We have seen modernized auto manufacturers that can compete with anybody, anywhere. We have visited dairy farms that see their future in exports to Asia. And already, a perhaps unlikely progressive coalition has endorsed KORUS. The United Auto Workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers and a number of key Democrats in Congress, including members from hard-hit states like Michigan, have expressed their hard-won support. They know we cannot leave markets to our competitors to win and hold. Korea is our eighth-largest trading partner, with a fast-growing, trillion-dollar economy. If we don’t fight for this market, we can be sure China and Europe will.

As we work to increase our global competitiveness and create good jobs, opening new markets and ensuring fair treatment for American exports is imperative. There are very few economic growth policies the government can execute without also growing the deficit. At this time of economic uncertainty and mounting debt, we need to pull each of those levers. Breaking down barriers to trade with a nation as wealthy and capable of consumption as South Korea is one of them. New export opportunities in that market for U.S. companies will support tens of thousands of American jobs and contribute to our economic recovery. And it makes clear to the world that while we will fight for fair treatment for our exporters, the environment and workers, we are not playing political games with global markets. We believe in rules-based trade and will stay at the table until a mutually agreeable resolution is reached.

This is a good deal for America. It is consistent with our values. We should approve it.

Sen. John Kerry is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both Mr. Kerry and Rep. Richard Neal are Democrats representing Massachusetts.

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