Background

The U.S. has requested the first-ever special session of the joint committee provided for under the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement to consider “possible amendments and modifications” to that agreement. This session must be held within 30 days, but an ongoing reorganization of the Korean government could cause delays. The two sides are expected to meet soon to agree on a specific date.

In a July 12 letter to his Korean counterpart, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the two sides need to work together to ensure that their economic partnership is strong, vibrant, and fair and that the KORUS agreement “benefits the U.S. economy as much as it does that of Korea.” He said the special session and the follow-on negotiations will provide an opportunity to review progress on the implementation of the FTA and resolve “several problems regarding market access in Korea for U.S. exports.”

Lighthizer drew particular attention to the “significant trade imbalance” the U.S. runs with Korea, including a deficit in goods trade that has persisted for “nearly two decades.” KORUS has not resolved this situation, he said, and in fact since its implementation in 2012 the overall U.S. trade deficit with Korea has increased and its goods trade deficit has doubled. As a result, Lighthizer said, the U.S. will be looking for “a truly fair and level playing field and a more balanced trade relationship.”

However, Korean officials expressed caution on the scope and speed of possible changes. The Korean government “wants to keep the framework as it is, not shaking it up greatly,” Yeo Han-koo, director general of the trade ministry’s Bureau of Trade Policy, was quoted as saying in a Wall Street Journal article. According to the Associated Press, a foreign ministry spokesman added that Korea wants to complete a review of whether KORUS “is the cause of the trade imbalance between the two countries,” as directed by President Trump and Korean President Moon Jae-in at a June summit, before deciding how the agreement might need to be revised. Korean officials also emphasized that the convening of a special session “doesn’t mean that the two parties have started renegotiations,” which will only begin when both sides agree to do so.

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