South Korea is a longstanding American ally, but President Donald Trump has spoken harshly about U.S. trade imbalances and threatened to tear up the bilateral trade pact.”We will do more to remove barriers to reciprocal trade and market access,” Trump said, adding that the two leaders had talked about the thorny trade areas of steel and autos. Trump said he was encouraged by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in’s assurances that he would seek a level playing field for American workers and businesses, particularly automakers. A joint statement said the two sides had agreed to work together to reduce over supply of basic materials such as steel and non-tariff barriers. It also said Trump had accepted an invitation from Moon to visit South Korea this year.
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said it was unwise for Trump to air the trade issue so publicly.
“Public complaints by Trump about unfair trade and inadequate defense spending provide opportunities for China and North Korea to drive a wedge between the allies,” she said.
The U.S. goods trade deficit with South Korea has more than doubled since the U.S.-Korea free trade pact known as KORUS took effect in 2012. The agreement was forecast to boost U.S. exports by $10 billion a year, but in 2016 they were $3 billion lower than in 2011.
At the start of Friday’s talks, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the largest component of the deficit was automotive trade and many non-tariff barriers to U.S. auto exports to South Korea remained.
“I think the way to address it is to deal product by product with what we can do to change the export side and what we can do to reduce the bad imports side,” he said. Ross said later on Friday that some progress had been made in the talks.
The current pact was agreed to despite protests by supporters of Moon, who was then in opposition. But analysts have suggested that given the need to preserve a unified front in the face of a hostile North Korea, there could be compromise on both sides to resolve issues. (By David Brunnstrom and Lisa Lambert. Additional reporting by Fatima Bhojani, Roberta Rampton, Tim Ahmann, David Chance, David Lawder and Eric Beech; Editing by Bill Trott and Andrew Hay)