Friday, April 25, 2008

Shelving the free-trade pact with South Korea would be a mistake

Opponents of a U.S.-South Korean free-trade agreement should be careful what they ask for. They've been demanding that South Korea first re-open its market to U.S. beef.

Last week officials from the two countries reached a deal that would do just that. Now, the naysayers have run out of plausible excuses to block the agreement.

With its rapidly developing economy and increasingly prosperous 48 million consumers, South Korea has become a lucrative market for exporters and investors. Its free-trade agreement with the United States would give U.S. firms and farmers the same kind of open access to that market that their South Korean counterparts already enjoy in the U.S. market, but the pact requires congressional approval to take effect.

Florida sent $328 million in exports to South Korea in 2006, with computers and electronics, machinery and transportation equipment the top categories. History shows a free-trade agreement would raise the totals, creating more jobs for Floridians. The state's exports to Canada, Mexico, Chile and Jordan all shot up after agreements with those countries.

This month's deal on beef would fully open South Korea's market to American producers for the first time since 2003, when a case of mad-cow disease was found in the United States. Before the closure, South Korea was the third-biggest export market for U.S. beef.

Now that the beef argument has been slaughtered, some opponents of the trade agreement are citing South Korea's limits on imports of U.S. autos. But that's a good reason to back, not buck, the agreement; it commits South Korea to lowering barriers to U.S. cars and trucks.

More general contentions about the agreement's threat to U.S. manufacturing also don't hold up. One in five U.S. jobs in that sector is linked to exports. Opening more markets abroad would help, not hurt, especially when a lower dollar makes U.S. goods more competitive. The first U.S. trade pact with a major Asian economy also would let U.S. companies better compete with Chinese, Japanese and European rivals doing business in the region.

Nearly a year ago, the Bush administration made a deal with Democratic leaders in Congress to ease the way for passing the South Korea agreement and three others by incorporating stronger labor and environmental protections. Just one of the agreements, with Peru, has been approved since.

This month House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled a parliamentary maneuver to shelve a free-trade agreement with Colombia. Now critics of the South Korea pact are moving the goal posts for its approval. This might seem like good politics in an election year -- Republican presidential candidate John McCain is a free-trade advocate -- but it's truly bad policy.,0,862204.story

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