While congressional Republicans and Democrats are bickering on most issues in the current lame-duck session, they should have no problem in ratifying a free-trade agreement with South Korea. Hawaii would benefit from such an agreement, which has been three years in finalizing a draft made by President George W. Bush and achieving a final version by President Barack Obama.
At the close of the G20 summit in Seoul last month, Obama said he and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak agreed that negotiators would work out "technical issues" that held up final approval of the trade pact "to find a sweet spot that works for both Korea and the United States."
The agreement, if ratified, would be the largest for the United States since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and Korea’s biggest ever.
The agreement could be profitable for Hawaii. In the single year following the 2004 U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, the value of Hawaii exports to Singapore jumped from $48 million to $520.9 million, accounting for more than half of Hawaii’s export market, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported.
Korea’s export market for Hawaii goods also has trailed China and Japan.
Outgoing U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, an avid supporter of the agreement, declared on the House floor in May that it "will directly help the tourism industry, the No. 1 sector of my district."
Korea was included in the U.S. visa waiver program in November 2008, allowing Koreans to travel to the U.S. with only a passport, but the global economic recession has dampened the growth in visitors from Korea.
Interest in the pact has been far from parochial. The Obama administration estimates that it will increase American exports to South Korea by at least $10 billion a year, opening Korea to U.S. telecommunications and financial services. Hawaii should benefit from the slashing of tariffs on American farm goods.
The incoming Republican leadership in the House supports the deal, along with Democratic loyalists such as the United Auto Workers union, automakers — expecting it to increase auto exports — and beef exporters. In recent years, Korea has exported automobiles to America nearly 200 times the number of U.S. cars shipped to Korea.
Other unions are opposed to the pact, as they have been to previous free trade agreements. But past agreements have demonstrated that free trade produces competition, efficiency and productivity, while protectionism breeds economic stagnation.
The U.S.-Korean pact should receive resounding approval, either in the congressional lame duck session or early in the next Congress.