In January, North Korea demanded that the United States normalize relations before the North would abandon its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea since has launched a multistage rocket, quit the six-party talks, restarted its nuclear reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, performed a second nuclear weapon test, test-fired two short-range missiles, announced its own version of the "reset button" by declaring the Korean War armistice over, and now plans to test launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.
In this security context the United States should push for the free-trade agreement with South Korea, known as KORUS-FTA. In a prior column, this author discussed the necessity for a U.S.-Japan free-trade agreement, but that cannot occur while the agreement with our other East Asian ally languishes. The KORUS-FTA is the linchpin for any future Asian free-trade agreements.
The agreement was signed by both nations in June 2007 and would eliminate tariffs on 95 percent of most goods and services. South Korea is the 10th-largest economy, our seventh-largest trading partner and our sixth-largest market for agricultural goods.
A number of independent and government studies indicate that the KORUS-FTA would add $20 billion in bilateral trade, increase U.S. gross domestic product by up to $11.9 billion, and raise U.S. exports by 49 percent.
On average, current American exports face higher tariffs in South Korea than the other way around. Although 70 percent of South Koreans believe it would promote friendly relations with the United States, there is great opposition by forces against free trade and various people in the new Obama administration.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, as a candidate for president, "While I value the strong relationship the United States enjoys with South Korea, I believe that this agreement is inherently unfair." There have been outstanding issues over items like U.S. beef exports, pharmaceuticals and products produced at Kaesong industrial complex.
However, President Obama must reassure the world of his free-trade credentials. There is consternation in many capitals over perceived protectionist sentiment and its dubious partner, isolationism. This issue is another victim of the lack of media attention to international affairs.
Aside from South Korea and Japan, the other democracy in Asia with which a free-trade agreement is needed is Taiwan. This agreement would seem easier, as Taiwan is not only our ninth-largest trading partner, but it also would provide an overall boost for U.S. manufacturing (Taiwan exports no automobiles), agriculture and especially the high-tech sector. As with South Korea, the stakes are high politically and diplomatically.
Rejection of free-trade agreements with East Asia’s democracies run counter to American values and economic interest. Bolstering free trade with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan sends a message of solidarity, stability and commitment. It is also a warning to potential aggressors. The negative outcomes of a KORUS rejection are legion and would send an ominous statement to Tokyo and Taipei. It will prove the unreliability of American diplomatic commitments to a political and military ally, which has risked much domestically in pushing for the agreement.
Rejection would play into the hands of the expansionists in Moscow and Beijing who seek to diminish our influence in the entire Pacific. There will be a chilling effect with other countries that plan to seek a free-trade agreement with the United States as this entire scene of political theater plays into the hands of the propagandists in Pyongyang.
There is more at stake here than an economic agreement; there is our entire presence in the Pacific.
Lamont Colucci is a former State Department diplomat and is an assistant professor of politics and government at Ripon College in Wisconsin. He recently published a book titled "Crusading Realism: The Bush Doctrine and American Core Values After 9/11," and is a contributing author of "The Day That Changed Everything: Looking at the Impact of 9/11 at the End of the Decade."