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The case for Korea: From Sen. Kerry, a welcome plea for free trade with South Korea

May 14, 2010

THESE ARE tense times on the Korean Peninsula. A South Korean patrol boat has been sunk, probably by a North Korean torpedo, with the loss of 46 lives. Seoul is groping for a response that is both appropriately tough and appropriately restrained — at a time when North Korea seems more politically unsettled and, hence, dangerous, than it has been in recent memory. Prosperous, democratic South Korea has always been able to count on the United States, as America has been able to count on the Koreans. The question is: Can the United States do anything now that is both in its self-interest and in the interest of a strong South Korea?

Fortunately, the answer is an easy “yes.” The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement knocks down many of the lingering barriers to trade between the two countries. Congressional approval of the pact would bolster American exports while shoring up a key Asian ally. Yet Democrats in Congress, urged on by their labor union allies, have been holding up the legislation for almost three years, ostensibly because it does not achieve enough market access for two U.S. products, autos and beef. Never mind that these concerns can be readily resolved — or that basically every other sector of American business favors the pact. President Obama, meanwhile, has been content to temporize.

Now comes a welcome nudge from a key Democrat on the Hill, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) who, together with the committee’s senior Republican, Richard Lugar of Indiana, has written the Obama administration urging officials to get behind the pact more forcefully. Noting that Mr. Obama himself advocates a doubling of U.S. exports over the next five years, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lugar rightly argue that approval of the pact would help create well-paying American jobs. The senators also correctly point out that South Korea is opening its markets to Europe, China and India while the United States dithers. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lugar offered to do whatever they can to speed the measure to passage, and if Mr. Obama is as serious about his economic and foreign policy goals as we think he is, he’ll take them up on it. He has every economic and strategic reason to make free trade with Korea a genuine priority. It has waited long enough.