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KORUS Review Still Underway; White House No Longer Considering Withdrawal
September 14, 2017


The review of the Korean-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) continues apace but, according to the White House legislative affairs director, no modifications to the review schedule are expected in the short term. In July, the USTR, Robert Lighthizer, called a special session to discuss possible amendments to the five-year-old bilateral agreement.

As it had during the weeks leading into its pending NAFTA renegotiation talks, the administration has stated that completely terminating KORUS was a possibility should discussions fail. Shortly after the Trump administration held two cabinet meetings seriously considering withdrawal from the agreement – one in late August and another on September 1st -- business leaders, legislators, and agency officials protested the withdrawal, citing national security, geopolitical, and economic concerns. In a local South Dakota radio interview, National Cattleman’s Beef Association president Craig Uden criticized renegotiation of KORUS, praising its benefits for cattle farmers and calling for renewed focus on bilateral discussions with Japan. Legislators from both sides of the aisle rejected withdrawal as a failure to support a key political ally in Asia and a shirking of political leadership in Asia. Thomas Donahue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce roundly condemned withdrawal:

“Ironically, states across mid-America that voted for the president would take the hit from withdrawal as their agricultural and manufactured goods exports fell in the wake of such a move. [Withdrawal from KORUS] would damage White House relations with allies in the business and agricultural communities and in Congress, greatly complicating other initiatives such as tax reform. And withdrawal would alienate one of our strongest international allies, jeopardizing national security at a time of crisis on the Korean peninsula.”

Withdrawal discussions met with the disapproval of Korean officials, too. South Korean Minister of Trade, Industry, and Energy, Paik Ungyu, urged caution, enjoining the U.S. to conduct a joint study of the FTA before entertaining notions of terminating it, and Cho Hyun, second vice foreign affairs minister, stated in a recent keynote address that the agreement was “very important” and that he was “very sanguine about its future.”

The administration seems to have retracted its threats to entirely abandon KORUS, for the time being. In a recent press conference in Mexico, Ambassador Lighthizer emphasized that the U.S. strongly preferred amending and updating the agreement over withdrawal.

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