Tag: south korea

Obama-Lee Summit: Time for New Thinking on the Korean Peninsula

Three issues are likely to dominate the talks this week between President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. On the economic front, the two leaders will emphasize the extensive potential benefits of the bilateral free trade agreement.

On the security front, there will be considerable discussion of both North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and the future of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Unfortunately, leaders of the two countries are locked into increasingly obsolete and dysfunctional policies with respect to both issues. New thinking on those security matters is badly needed.

Seoul and Washington routinely contend that they will not tolerate North Korea having a nuclear arsenal. But other than the long-standing attempt to isolate Pyongyang internationally, U.S. and South Korean officials present no plausible strategy for preventing Kim Jong-il’s regime from expanding its nuclear capabilities. The much-touted six-party talks clearly have not worked. Moreover, without China’s active cooperation to deny crucial food and energy aid to North Korea (and there is no indication that Beijing is willing to take that step), North Korea cannot be truly isolated. Obama and Lee need to consider the possibility of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea, since the current U.S.-South Korean strategy for dealing with the nuclear issue is hopelessly ineffectual.

Policy regarding the bilateral security alliance is no better. Predictably, Lee and Obama will reaffirm the importance of that alliance. But from the standpoint of American interests, this commitment makes little sense. The principal effect of Washington’s security blanket for South Korea is to enable that country to shamelessly free-ride on America’s military exertions. Despite being located next to perhaps the most dangerous and unpredictable country in the world—Kim Jong-il’s North Korea—South Korea continues to spend an anemic 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. That is woefully inadequate, and the only reason Seoul can get away with such irresponsible behavior is that South Korean leaders believe they can rely on the United States to take care of their country’s security—at the expense of American taxpayers.

That arrangement was dubious even when South Korea was a weak, traumatized country facing a North Korea strongly backed by both the Soviet Union and Communist China. Today, South Korea is a wealthy country, and Moscow and Beijing regard North Korea as an embarrassment, not a crucial ally.

President Obama should inform Lee that an America whose government is hemorrhaging red ink at the rate of $1.5 trillion a year can no longer afford to subsidize the defense of free-riding allies—especially those that are perfectly capable of providing for their own defense. This summit meeting creates an opportunity for Washington to begin phasing-out the obsolete military alliance with South Korea.

Finally, a Vote on the Three Trade Agreements

Almost a thousand days into his term, President Obama has at last submitted the trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama for an up or down vote in Congress.

All three agreements appear to have majority support in both the House and the Senate. Organized labor is putting up its usual anti-free-trade fight against all three, with AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka coming out swinging in a Politico op-ed this week. He makes the standard union argument that Colombia is an unworthy free-trade partner because of ongoing violence against union members in that country.

In a Free Trade Bulletin earlier this year, my Cato colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo and I examined the commercial benefits of the agreement with Colombia as well as the hollowness of the union charge. In the past decade, Colombia has made tremendous progress against violence in general, and especially violence aimed at union members. In fact, as we write in the FTB:

The statistics on the number of killings against union members vary depending on the source, with the figure from the government’s Ministry of Social Protection being lower than that of the National Union School (ENS for its acronym in Spanish), a Colombian nongovernmental organization affiliated with the labor movement. However, both sources show a steep decline in the number of killings since 2001. Moreover, when compared with the total number of homicides in the country, killings of union members clearly have dropped at a faster rate than those of the general population (see Figure 1).

Critics of the FTA fail to recognize that violent crime affects all levels of Colombian society, not only trade unions. What is more, the statistics show that union members enjoy more security than the population at large.

Looking at the homicide rate as defined by the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the rate for the total population in 2010 was 33.9 per 100,000, whereas the rate for union killings was 5.3 per 100,000 unionists that same year (using the statistics of the ENS). That means that the homicide rate for the overall population is 6 times higher than that for union members.

Having just returned from a speaking trip last week to Medellín, Colombia, I can vouch that, after a difficult period of battling Marxist guerrillas and drug cartels, Colombia has once again become a normal country with a growing economy. Medellín is a bustling, business-oriented city with the usual challenges of traffic congestion. The students I spoke with at EAFIT University seemed eager for closer ties with the United States, and they do not understand why it has taken almost five years since the signing of the agreement for Congress to schedule a vote on it.

As I explained in an interview with the city’s leading newspaper (conducted in English, but translated here in Spanish), the politicians in Washington have run out of excuses for not establishing free trade between our two countries.

[Our Cato colleague Doug Bandow made the case for a trade agreement with South Korea in a study we released last year.]

Trade Agreements Promote U.S. Manufacturing Exports

Do trade agreements promote trade? The answer appears to be yes. In a new Cato Free Trade Bulletin released today, I examine the record of trade agreements the United States has signed with 14 other nations during the past decade.

The impact of those agreements on U.S. trade is a timely subject because Congress may soon consider pending free-trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Opponents of such deals often argue that they open the U.S. economy to unfair competition from low-wage countries, displacing U.S. manufacturing. Advocates argue the agreements do open the U.S. market further to imports, but they open markets abroad even wider for U.S. exports.

Based on actual post-agreement trade flows, I found that both total imports and exports with the 14 countries grew faster than overall U.S. trade since each agreement went into effect. For politicians obsessed with manufacturing exports, the study should be especially encouraging. Here is a key finding:

Politically sensitive manufacturing trade with the 14 FTA partners has expanded more rapidly than overall U.S. manufacturing trade, especially on the export side. U.S. manufacturing exports to the recent FTA partners were 10.5 percent higher in 2010 compared to our overall export growth since each agreement was signed. That represents an additional $8 billion in manufacturing exports.

I’ll be discussing the three pending trade agreements alongside William Lane of Caterpillar Inc. at a Cato Hill Briefing on Wednesday of this week. Along with the new study on the past FTAs, I’ll be talking about our recent studies on the Columbia and Korea agreements.

TAA Reversal on Grand Bargain

On Monday, a group of 41 Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (MI) sent a letter to President Obama, praising his administration’s recent decision to abandon its erstwhile promotion of the three pending trade deals as “job creators” and instead warn Congress it won’t submit the pacts for a vote unless they can be assured that a stimulus-enhanced version of trade adjustment assistance will be renewed.

The letter contains much about the benefits of the program, with little mention of its costs to taxpayers and even less concern shown for the innocent consumers whose pockets have been picked for decades to maintain the jobs lost when trade is allowed to flow more freely. That’s pretty standard fare for protectionists, who rely on the hidden and dispersed nature of the costs to get support for their policies. What’s new about this situation is the ratchet effect – the base TAA program is still in place, so what they are asking for is a renewal of part of the stimulus as a pre-condition for supporting trade liberalization. Note that the stimulus changes included a removal of the requirement that job losses be linked to a trade agreement (a feature, not a bug of the program, according to the Senators).

Wait, did I say a renewal of TAA-plus would be a pre-condition for supporting trade agreements? Not necessarily. Note this telling paragraph of the letter:

While we the undersigned may have differing views on elements of the trade agenda - with some of us looking forward to supporting the pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, and others skeptical of the impact of the agreements -we are unified in our belief that the first order of business, before we should consider any FTA, is securing a long-term TAA extension.  [emphasis added]

As I’ve said repeatedly, I understand (even if I don’t support) the political calculation that TAA is necessary – and worth it– if it secures votes for trade liberalization. But reading between the lines, some of the letter signers have no intention voting for the trade agreements, even if the mega-TAA is approved.  What we have here is a reversal of the grand bargain on trade liberalization, that gave extra welfare to workers who lost their job because of freer trade in exchange for support for trade agreements that lowered trade barriers. That ‘grand bargain’ has been tenuous for years now, of course – witness the complete lack of movement on the trade agreements even after the 2009 enhancement of TAA, at least until recent months. But now, rather than using TAA to buy votes for trade liberalization, the administration and their allies appear to using pretty-much-assured votes for trade liberalization to buy TAA. As a Wall Street Journal editorial said on Friday, it’s extortion.

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Wednesday Links

  • Osama bin Laden’s death gives us a chance to end what might have become an era of permanent emergency and perpetual war.
  • The Cold War ended–what are we doing in Korea?
  • Two cheers for President Obama for ending eight (well, three) tax breaks to oil companies.
  • Does Osama bin Laden’s death mean an end to U.S.-Pakistan relations?
  • Please join us next Tuesday, May 10 at 4:00 p.m. Eastern for a Cato Book Forum on America’s Allies and War: Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, by University of Mary Washington political scientist Jason W. Davidson. Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and Georgetown University international relations professor Charles Kupchan will join Professor Davidson in a discussion of the book and its themes, particularly U.S. relations with NATO allies, moderated by Cato director of foreign policy studies Christopher A. Preble. Complimentary registration is required of all attendees by Monday, May 9 at noon Eastern. We hope you can join us in person, but we encourage you to watch online if you cannot attend personally.

Finally, a Breakthrough on the Colombia Trade Agreement

To no great surprise, the Obama administration announced today that it has cut a deal with the government of Colombia to address concerns about labor protections and to finally move toward enacting the long-stalled free-trade agreement between our two countries. This is welcome news for trade expansion and for strengthening our ties to a key Latin American ally.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to arrive later this week in Washington to cement the deal. In exchange for the agreement, Colombia has reportedly agreed to expand its efforts to protect union members from violence and to more vigorously prosecute those responsible.

As my Cato colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo and I documented in a Cato study earlier this year, concerns about labor protections were never a valid reason for holding up this agreement. The overall murder rate in Colombia has declined dramatically in the past decade, and the murder rate against members of labor unions has declined even more rapidly. A union member in Colombia today is one-sixth as likely to be a victim of homicide as a fellow citizen who does not belong to a union. Meanwhile, the Colombia government has increased convictions for homicides against union members by eight-fold in the past three years.

As Democratic Senators John Kerry and Max Baucus pointed out in an op-ed this week that endorsed the agreement, the International Labor Organization has certified that Colombia is complying with its international labor agreements.

The obstacle of labor violence was just a political smokescreen that had been raised by labor-union leaders in the United States looking for any shred of an argument to oppose the agreement. Even the agreement announced this week is not going to win over the AFL-CIO. The Colombia government could have raised a hundred murdered union members from the dead, and organized labor in American would still chant that not enough was being done.

The breakthrough this week clears the path for Congress to approve, by what I predict will be comfortable bipartisan majorities, the pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.

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Who Should Defuse the Korean Bomb?

Fear of war has become a new constant for the Korean peninsula.  On Monday South Korea initiated a military exercise in the Yellow Sea and North Korea threatened to retaliate.  Seoul went ahead without any response from the North, but the region retains the feel of a bomb with an unstable fuse.

In the short term Washington has no choice but to uphold its alliance obligations to the South.  However, Pyongyang’s increasingly erratic behavior offers a dramatic reminder of the most important cost of the unilateral security guarantee:  the threat of war.

The alliance was created at a different time in a different world—1953, after the conclusion of a war which had devastated the peninsula.  Only U.S. military support preserved South Korea’s independence.  Since then the South has developed economically and is well able to protect itself.  The U.S. should begin turning over defense responsibilities to Seoul, with an expeditious withdrawal of all American troops.  The defense treaty, with America’s promise to forever guard the South, irrespective of circumstance, should be turned into a framework for future cooperation in cases of mutual interest.

The U.S. no longer can afford to maintain Cold War alliances as if the Cold War still existed.  Commitments like that to South Korea are expensive, since they drive America’s military budget.  More important, as we see in Northeast Asia, alliances also increase the possibility of war for the U.S.  It is time to update America’s military commitments to reflect today’s world.