Arm-Wrestling Could Jeopardize Korea-U.S. FTA

      November 12, 2010 13:19

      Additional talks over a Korea-U.S. free trade agreement fell apart due to American insistence that Korea open its market to more U.S. beef exports. President Lee Myung-bak said during a joint press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday that more time is needed to resolve the details, and Obama said the two presidents asked their teams "to work tirelessly in the coming days and weeks to get this completed."

      There is no need to wrap up the additional FTA talks by the end of the G20 Seoul Summit. Rather than stoke misunderstandings by rushing to meet the deadline, the right thing to do is to take time and hold calm discussions to achieve better results.

      But some points need to be made about the attitude the U.S. negotiators have taken in the talks. Korea accepted most of the U.S. demands to ease environmental and safety regulations for automobiles. That alone is enough to draw criticism from the Korean public for yielding to U.S. pressure. It shows how strong Korea's will was to finally get the FTA on the road. But Korean officials apparently made it clear several times to their U.S. counterparts that the beef issue has to stay off the table.

      The U.S. government knows full well how badly Korea was disrupted by mass protests as a result of talks with Washington over the resumption of beef imports back in 2008. Insisting that Seoul fully open its market to U.S. beef is like pushing the Korean government to pour gasoline on a fire. Yet still U.S. trade officials brought up the beef issue at the last minute, saying that the deal requires the support of lawmakers representing beef producing states. The U.S. must have legitimate reasons to do so, but it shows a lack of consideration for the negotiating partner.

      The U.S. does not stand to reap huge benefits even if Korea opens up its beef market further. Most of the cattle slaughtered in the U.S. is less than 20 months old anyway. Even U.S. officials have said that exports of beef from cattle over 30 months old would amount to only about 5 percent of total beef exports. So far this year, U.S. beef imports to Korea surged more than 50 percent compared to last year. Seeking to sell beef from cattle over 30 months old under these circumstances is pure greed.

      Rather than break open a particular market in a single blow, it would be more beneficial for the U.S. to monitor the trends of the Korean market and prod it to open up further gradually. They need to think long and hard whether the issue of beef from cattle 30 months or older is worth jettisoning the entire Korea-U.S. FTA for.

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