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Long-Stalled Trade Agreement with South Korea Sees Some Light

When I accompanied a group of editors and producers to Korea in November 2007, the big news was the pending final approval of a multi-billion free trade agreement between Washington and Seoul.

Four years later, it is still pending.

But there are signs of movement on the eve of the state visit to Washington of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. On Monday, President Obama sent trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress for approval. Congress has 60 days to vote them up or down without amendments. But in the Korean case, the deadlines are closer: either during President Lee’s Oct. 11-13 visit to Washington or by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii in mid-November.

The president’s move on Monday seems to have broken a show-me-first deadlock between the White House and congressional Republicans. The White House and congressional Democrats wanted action on trade adjustment assistance (help for workers displaced by imports). Republicans wanted the trade deals formally submitted. The plan to tie them into a four-part package has been hobbled by what two lobbyists identically described “as a total lack of trust” between the two parties. But with an overwhelming Senate vote last month to go ahead on worker assistance, and now the promise of House action, the impasse may have been resolved.

Business groups have come out four-square for the trade deals, especially the Korean pact, which they argue could add $11 billion in exports for U.S. companies and farmers. Most of the opposition has come from a cluster of Democrats and unions fearing job losses.

The trade breakthrough removes one source of possible tension in the upcoming trip of President Lee, which will be the first bells-and-whistles state visit by a Korean leader since President Kim Dae-jung came to Washington in the early days of the George W. Bush presidency and was bluntly told the new administration had no interest in pursuing Clinton administration talks with North Korea on dismantling that country’s budding nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang has since expanded its nuclear arsenal and the six-nation talks (South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, the United States and North Korea) initiated by the Bush administration have gone into limbo.

The remaining big issue for President Lee’s visit, according to Korea analyst Victor Cha, is whether the Obama administration will announce a second round of “exploratory” direct talks with North Korea.

North Korea, now going through a third generational change of leadership as Kim Jung Il begins handing the reins to his 28-year-old son Kim Jung Un. Tensions with the South reached a peak late last year with attacks on a South Korean island outpost. And from Seoul, President Lee has set far tougher conditions for negotiations with the North than his more liberal predecessors.

According to Cha, Lee’s visit will symbolize the growing importance of South Korea as a key Asian ally for the United States — on a range of issues from Afghanistan to climate change — as Japan remains embroiled in domestic political troubles and China pursues its own path to becoming a major regional and world power.

Photo of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak by Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Follow Michael Mosettig on Twitter.

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