WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — Leading senators and a group of former officials are pushing the Obama administration to send a stalled U.S.-South Korean free trade deal to Congress. But with November elections looming, the accord may already be dead this year.
Unemployment is high in this country and few politicians are willing to support trade pacts that many voters believe rob Americans of jobs. Lawmakers also have plenty of other issues, including an overhaul of financial regulations, to fill their agenda this year.
The ambitious deal to cut trade barriers was signed in 2007 but has since languished amid dissatisfaction over a yawning gap in auto trade between the countries. Still, advocates continue to push for the accord to be sent to Congress for a ratification vote, portraying it as potentially a huge export boon for both countries.
Two senior senators, Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts and Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, urged President Barack Obama in a letter this month to press ahead with an accord they said would help the United States create jobs and strengthen the countries' alliance.
The New Beginnings policy study group, comprised mostly of former U.S. officials and diplomats, warned this week in a report that failure to act quickly "will not only hurt the American economy and cost American jobs, but will also reduce U.S. credibility and influence with South Korea and all of East Asia."
The trade deal also got a boost from Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official ever to defect to South Korea. Hwang used a rare trip to Washington in March to voice support for the accord as a way to thwart the North's efforts to weaken the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
The Democratic Party controls Congress, and Obama has pledged to strengthen trade ties with South Korea. But Obama has yet to push Congress and businesses for the support needed to pass a deal that is more favored by opposition Republicans than by Democrats.
Many Democrats want South Korea to address its wide surplus in auto trade.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the House of Representatives committee that oversees trade policies, said recently that South Korea allows only a small number of American cars into the country while a flood of South Korean autos enters the United States.
Meanwhile, South Korea is not waiting around for the Americans. It has a number of pacts in force and has concluded negotiations with the European Union, although that agreement must still be signed and ratified.