Issue at Hand: The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, signed in June 2007, is the first free trade deal between the United States and a major Asian economy and the largest for the United States since it signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1993.
The agreement, which would eliminate tariffs on about 95% of consumer and industrial products and add an estimated $20 billion to bilateral trade, has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Congress or the South Korean National Assembly. There is only a remote chance that both bodies will ratify the trade deal this year or before President-elect Barack Obama takes office.
Obama's Stance: While saying he is committed to free trade and a stronger alliance with South Korea, Obama has said he does not support the trade deal in its current form. Obama views the agreement as "flawed," specifically in regard to an imbalance in U.S. auto exports, and is anticipated to push for renegotiation of certain parts of the pact. After his election last week, South Korean officials quickly restated their position against renegotiations, saying that revisiting the already signed agreement would be like opening "Pandora's box."
South Koreans' Views on the Agreement: Shortly after months of negotiations concluded in April 2007, Gallup asked South Koreans about the trade agreement and found their attitudes on the trade deal's benefits to be somewhat mixed:
- Slightly more than a third (37%) of South Koreans felt their country had more to gain than lose from the agreement, while a plurality (48%) said it had more to lose than gain.
- South Koreans were divided as to whether the country's domestic industry would (45%) or would not (46%) shrink because of the agreement.
- A majority of South Koreans (58%) believed the agreement ultimately would improve South Korea's industrial competitiveness, while about 3 in 10 (31%) did not.
- A large majority (70%) believed the agreement would promote more friendly relations between the two countries, while only 21% did not.
South Korea-U.S. Relations: Obama spoke last week with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, and, according to a South Korean spokesperson, emphasized the need to further strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance. South Koreans surveyed by Gallup in 2007 and again in 2008 see stronger relations with the United States as beneficial to their national interests:
- In 2007, a slight majority of South Koreans (55%) said strengthening ties with the United States will be most beneficial to their country. By comparison, 31% said this about South Korean ties with China.
- In 2008, more South Koreans saw a strong relationship with the United States as very important than said the same about a strong relationship with Russia, China, or Japan. South Koreans were as likely to say a strong relationship with North Korea is very important.
Policy Implications: The free-trade deal with South Korea could be one of the early tests for the Obama administration; its response likely will set the tone not only for U.S.-South Korean relations, but also for the broader issue of U.S. free-trade policy.
The key finding for Obama is that South Koreans desire stronger relations with the United States. But further delays or calls for renegotiation of an already signed Korea-U.S. agreement could potentially strain this long-standing and strategic relationship, so the approach that the next administration takes will be critical.
Results based on telephone surveys with 1,000 South Korean residents, aged 15 and older, conducted in April-May 2007 and in September 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults in each survey, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.