If the agreement between the United States and South Korea is approved by the lawmakers of both countries, it would be the first big trade deal since NAFTA passed in 1993. And whether it’s a good thing depends on where you sit.
South Korea is Washington state’s fifth-largest export market and Korean imports represent the third-largest volume in dollar value coming through Puget Sound ports. The agreement is expected to benefit big capital-goods producers, such as Boeing, and certain agricultural sectors (but not beef). For example, it would eliminate tariffs on wheat, cherries, wine and potatoes.
For President Obama, it potentially makes progress toward his goal of doubling exports in five years — although the United States hasn’t done that since the late 1940s — and placates critics who say the chief executive has been slow to push free trade.
Big corporations, including banking, stand to gain from the agreement’s provisions to open the South Korean market to services. Even the auto industry got a bone, with a five-year phaseout of the 2.5 percent tariff on imported South Korean cars and some aid in expanding Detroit’s exports beyond their current 6,000 a year. (Alan Mulally, Ford chief executive and former head of Boeing commercial airplanes, supports the deal.)
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Unfortunately, little help will come to unemployed Americans. The administration conceded this in saying only that the agreement would “support tens of thousands of jobs.” The U.S. International Trade Commission stated that the effect on employment would be “negligible.”
The Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank, estimates 159,000 American jobs could be lost in the first seven years after the pact goes into effect.
Given the destabilization of the North American Free Trade Agreement, this doesn’t seem out of line. A 2004 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated that 525,000 workers had lost their jobs because of NAFTA, but many new jobs in export-related sectors had been created. The best guess: no net job gains, or a slight gain.
For example, some Midwestern factory and Southeastern textile workers lost jobs, while, say, trade jobs in Texas grew. One big promise used to sell that agreement, that it would stem illegal immigration, proved wildly wrong.
The South Korea agreement would also produce winners and losers. but I’m not surprised that its backers are cautious about promising meaningful new job creation at home. American corporations would establish or expand operations in South Korea, as they did in China and India. They would also employ large numbers of Koreans to take advantage of the significantly lower labor costs. For example, a comparison by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showed in 2008 that South Korean manufacturing compensation costs were half what they were in the United States.
So the best we can hope for is to retain jobs, in some sectors and some states, with a deal that the administration claims would add $10 billion in exports a year. That figure compares with more than $1 trillion in total American exports to the world in 2009.
That $10 billion promise of additional exports is about the size of the U.S. merchandise trade deficit with Seoul. But the agreement gives Korean exporters additional access to the American market. So no one is promising a big dent in the deficit.
Which brings us back to some fundamental truths. Americans buy more from overseas than they produce and sell there. We’re competing in a world with cheap, surplus labor, much of it highly skilled. And the global business interests of major American corporations do not necessarily align with those of average American workers.
Still, the South Korea deal is about more than container traffic or wheat or political spin. The nation is one of America’s most important allies in a rapidly changing Asia. This alone will probably assure passage.
Yet economists lately have been assessing dangers on the Korean peninsula that are greater than trade deficits or even ordinary geopolitics. With the artillery shelling of a South Korean island last month, and in March the sinking of a South Korean warship, North Korea’s provocations have reached a level not seen since the Korean War in the early 1950s. The North is armed with at least atomic bombs and is making unexpectedly fast progress toward bigger weapons.
For example, Roubini Global Economics, the forecasting and analysis outfit founded by star economist Nouriel Roubini, still sees the likelihood of a major conflict as small. “However, a low but still real possibility exists that some combination of miscalculation, political maneuvering in the North’s power structure and outright emotion could tip the peninsula into a war.”
If so, America and China would face a destabilizing event that would make charges of currency manipulation look like the good old days.
You may reach Jon Talton at email@example.com