National Security & Defense

Now Is Not the Time to Abandon Our Trade Agreement with South Korea

South Korean president Moon Jae-in with President Trump at the White House in June. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
President Trump can’t afford to push Seoul into China’s arms as the peninsula’s nuclear crisis escalates.

President Donald Trump seems inclined to withdraw from or renegotiate the Korea–U.S. trade partnership (KORUS) in the wake of North Korea’s latest nuclear aggressions. But doing so would only serve to limit America’s options for dealing with the rogue regime in Pyongyang, and could also empower China.

Trump has long expressed his displeasure with KORUS, at different points calling it “horrible” and a “job killer.” In many ways, Trump is right. The Bush and Obama administrations both pursued the deal, promising that it would be a boon for the U.S. manufacturing industry. “When the deal was signed, the United States International Trade Commission predicted that it would boost American goods exports to South Korea by around $10bn,” The Economist noted in March 2017. But since the agreement’s implementation in 2012, the U.S. trade deficit has doubled and American exports have fallen by $3 billion.

The president, however, appears unable or unwilling to consider the intangible benefits of a strong, or at least stable, U.S.–South Korea relationship in the face of a perilous nuclear crisis. North Korea conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date Sunday, following months of similar provocations. The North Korean regime may even be well on its way to mounting a powerful nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. homeland.

Trump doesn’t have very many options for confronting this fast-developing nuclear crisis, and he’ll have even fewer options if he withdraws from the KORUS agreement.

Conventional wisdom dictates that China is the key to solving or at least de-escalating the crisis on the Korean peninsula. A U.S. withdrawal from KORUS at this time of extraordinary crisis would only serve to strengthen China’s influence at a time when relying completely on Beijing is dangerous. China, by Trump’s own admission, has been largely unwilling and/or unable to curb the North Korean regime’s behavior. China also has a very different view of the crisis and does not necessarily seek the same ends on the Korean peninsula as the U.S.

“If China is your key economic partner, there’s a lot less reason to listen to Washington,” Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer told the Guardian over the weekend, explaining what South Korea is likely to do in the event that Trump does withdraw the U.S. from KORUS. China already has huge economic leverage over South Korea, something it was more than willing to use in 2016, when it tried to convince Seoul to abandon the planned deployment of American missile-defense batteries.

An American withdrawal from KORUS would only empower China to exploit a rift in South Korea–U.S. relations and bring an end to the North Korean crisis on terms that may be less than favorable to our national interests. “One of the big reasons we decided to go forward with the agreement was to demonstrate to the South Koreans, North Koreans, and Chinese that the U.S. was committed to this relationship for the long haul,” Michael Green, a Bush-administration official who played a key role in drafting the deal, recently told the New York Times.

Abandoning KORUS could cause South Korea to question its fundamental relationship with the U.S., and drive Seoul into China’s arms at the very moment when Washington is trying to get both parties to find some sort of resolution to the escalating nuclear crisis.


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