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News Analysis: S.Korea to squarely face Trump's call for renegotiating bilateral FTA

SEOUL, July 14 -- U.S. President Donald Trump demanded the renegotiation on free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea, which in turn resolved to squarely face his call by preparing for the expected negotiations on the amendment or modification of the bilateral FTA.

U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer sent a letter on Wednesday to South Korean Trade Minister Joo Hyung-hwan to hold a special session of the joint committee on the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, which came into force in 2012.

Under the bilateral free trade deal, either side can ask for the special session. The other side, in principle, is required to accept the request within 30 days.

On his flight to Paris for a summit meeting with his French counterpart Wednesday, Trump described the U.S.-South Korea FTA as a "horrible deal," vowing to put things right by "renegotiating" the deal.

The U.S. leader initially took issue with the pact during a joint press conference in Washington following his summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for two days through June 30.

In response, President Moon instructed his aides Thursday to prepare for all possibilities, saying it needed to weigh whether the U.S.-South Korea FTA increased the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea.

Local newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported Friday that Moon's comments indicated the bilateral FTA was not a direct cause of the increased U.S. deficit in trade with South Korea.

A senior Blue House official, who declined to be identified, told local reporters Thursday that the growing U.S. trade deficit with South Korea was not directly caused by the free trade deal.

During his meeting with senior secretaries, President Moon stressed that South Korea should squarely face the call from the U.S. side, saying that if negotiations on the FTA kick off, the South Korean side would have what it wants in the bilateral deal.

"The signing of the FTA would not necessarily mean the everlasting deal. Upgrade or review of the FTA is possible at any time. The USTR also premised the modification," Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, told Xinhua.

Trump used the word of "renegotiating" which hinted at the wholesale revision or even the repealing of the FTA, but the South Korean government said the USTR only mentioned "follow-up negotiations" to revise a part of the pact.

Bong said Trump used an aggressive word of renegotiation to give an impression of honoring his campaign pledge to "domestic audience" for political purpose, forecasting a pragmatic approach by the U.S. side to the negotiations.

As the Rust Belt of the U.S. Midwest states was the major supporting base for Trump, the U.S. side would try hard to win concessions in steel and auto sectors from the South Korean side, the researcher forecast.

According to the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) data, South Korea's auto exports to the United States reached 15.49 billion U.S. dollars in 2016, about nine times bigger than 1.68 billion dollars of the U.S. car exports to South Korea.

Citing the local auto industry, the Korea Economic Daily newspaper said the nine-fold gap was mainly attributable to lack of competitiveness of U.S. models compared with German and Japanese cars that surged in sales in recent years.

For the past five years since the U.S.-South Korea FTA took effect in 2012, South Korea's car exports to the U.S. rose at an annual average rate of 12.4 percent, much lower than 35.5 percent of growth in the U.S. auto exports to South Korea.

The newspaper said the U.S. deficit in steel trade with South Korea stemmed mainly from global supply glut, noting that the U.S. side has already imposed anti-dumping and counter-vailing duties on South Korean steelmakers.

In the upcoming negotiations, South Korea would be able to make a give-and-take deal with the United States given that South Korea had posted a lot of deficit with the United States in the services trade.

South Korea's services deficit with the United States worsened from 10.9 billion dollars in 2011 to 14.3 billion dollars in 2016.

During the same period, South Korea's overall trade surplus with the United States increased from 13.3 billion dollars to 27.7 billion dollars.

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