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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2010

Good trade deal

The United States and South Korea signed a free-trade agreement three years ago, but Congress never approved it. That was just as well, because the deal negotiated by the Bush administration did too little to open South Korea's notoriously closed market for imported cars and trucks.

This month, the Obama Administration and Korean trade officials announced agreement on a revised pact that does much to level the playing field for trade between the two nations in autos and other goods and services.

It deserves prompt ratification by lawmakers of both parties, including those in the auto-dependent states of Ohio and Michigan.

The Detroit Three automakers will export fewer than 7,500 vehicles to South Korea this year — less than one-half of 1 percent of the country's car market. Under the proposed trade agreement, the U.S. automakers could export as many as 25,000 vehicles apiece that meet American safety standards but not Korean ones.

South Korea will cut its 8 percent tariff on vehicles imported from the United States to 4 percent immediately, and phase it out over five years. A 10 percent tariff on U.S.-made light trucks goes away immediately. Korean officials also pledge to curb discriminatory enforcement of fuel-economy and emissions standards.

At the same time, the United States will get four years to end its 2.5 percent tariff on imports of Korean-built cars; the original deal would have lifted the tariff immediately. The tariff can be adjusted if imports rise too quickly.

A 25 percent tariff on Korean light trucks will stay in effect for six years before it expires. U.S. automakers and the United Auto Workers, which opposed the original Korean trade deal, say they support this version.

The updated agreement also would lower Korean protectionist barriers to U.S. farm products, other manufactured goods, and financial and telecommunications services. It offers more protection against patent infringement to U.S. drug makers.

White House officials say the agreement with South Korea, the world's 12th-biggest economy, would boost U.S. exports to that country by $11 billion a year. That means more jobs — potentially tens of thousands — and better prospects for economic competitiveness and recovery here.

More broadly, the agreement would strengthen diplomatic and strategic relations, as well as economic ones, between the two countries at a time when South Korea is threatened militarily by the irrational and aggressive regime in North Korea.

The Korean agreement is the largest trade deal since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. Its approval would make it easier for Congress to enact useful deals with Colombia and Panama, which also have languished since the Bush administration.

That could create a more-receptive climate for global trade talks, and show that the nativist rhetoric on trade that figured prominently in so many of this year's election campaigns was for domestic consumption only.

It was embarrassing for the White House when President Obama, who opposed the original Korean trade agreement during his 2008 campaign, left Seoul without a modified pact last month. But the revised deal was worth waiting for. Now all Congress and its Korean counterpart need to do is ratify it.



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