UPDATE (December 6, 2010): Just yesterday, the deal got a lot closer , but the comments below still hold, insofar as the US and Korean legislatures must now approve the deal, and legislatures are historically more protectionist than executives.
UPDATE II (December 7, 2010): This is why I would have voted for Lee Myung-Bak if I were a Korean. Well done! Lee has the wisdom to see the long-term benefit of the Korus FTA – keeping the US engaged in Korea at a time of Tea Party disdain for huge government, US imperial overstretch in Iraq and Afghanistan, record US debt and deficits, and increased NK truculence. So if Korean car-makers have to wait a year or two, wth difference does that make when you live next to the last, worst stalinist slave state? Get real; look at the bigger picture. Lee is light-years ahead of the SK left on Korea’s extreme geopolitical vulnerability – small, encircled by historical opponents, desperately in need of US power to maintain its autonomy in such a tough neighborhood. Generally I think he has been a good leader for Korea. And again this time. Good job, and shame on the US for leveraging Korea like this for concessions.
Reflecting on the recent G-20, I think more and more that the continuing impasse on the Korus (Korea-US) FTA (free trade agreement) is the biggest disappointment. The impasse between deficit and surplus countries is a huge, long-term headache that will take years, perhaps even generational change, to break. A ‘culture of export’ grips especially the Asian exporters, where a trade surplus is viewed mercantilitistically as a national victory in a global competition and something not to be surrendered even if it jeopardizes the whole global trading framework. (For why that is both wrong and destructive, start here.) The FTA by contrast was more doable – the issues are smaller and easier, and the US and Korea are long-standing allies. But the US has insisted on re-negotiations, and President Lee dropped the ball on global leadership by caving to domestic protectionists. So now the whole thing is up in the air again. This jeopardizes Korea more than the US, but I am struck by how little of the Korean commentary sees the dramatic asymmetry of benefits toward Korea, as well as obvious national security linkage behind the deal.
1. As the image above makes clear, Korea is substantially smaller than the US. Demographically, Korea is 6.5 times smaller than the US. In GDP, it is 15 times smaller. In terms of sheer scale, opening the American door for Korea exports means far greater breadth of possible export reach than vice versa. In the same way that Mexican firms could suddenly operate across a huge North American expanse after NAFTA, tiny Korea should reap significantly greater rewards than US firms exporting to a smaller (and comparatively poorer) market with a strong history of nationalist buying and tacit import discrimination. Indeed, given that, I am surprised the American business community even cares that much.
2. Korean GDP per capita is about 75% of that of the US. Hence the convergence benefit of the FTA for Korea is quite clear. When economic entities at very different stages of wealth accumulation are put together in a free trade environment, the majority of the benefits accrue to the poorer of the two, as investment races to the location of highest return. Poorer economies catch-up, or ‘converge.’ This happened after the American South was forcefully reunited with the Union; it is happening again in Mexico after NAFTA and eastern Europe after EU accession. It is happening more generally in East Asia, as it has joined the WTO in the last 20 years. (By contrast, the US-Canada FTA of 1988 had little dramatic impact on either side, because they were already fairly similar.) In short, the biggest beneficiaries of free trade spaces are almost always the poorer states; rapid convergence is commonly understand as an ‘economic miracle’ (Germany in the 50s and 60s, Korea in the 70s and 80s). So US exporters will benefit at the margins in a small and poorer economy, but Korea’s benefits will be much greater.
3. The Korea market is far more closed than the US. Opening it up will create for greater disruption, therefore, for established winners like the chaebol (hence the general ambivalence of the Korean business community to the FTA), but the rewards to consumers here will be enormous. A wave of healthy competition from American imports will force Korea’s sluggish providers to ramp up services while bringing down Korea’s ridiculously high consumer prices. An obvious example is smart phones. Smart phone technology – available in the US for almost a decade – only came to Korea this year, because the Korean telco duopoly (KT and SK at 90% market share) had no incentive to make better phones and used their market power and government connections to block imports (particularly the Nokia, Apple, and Microsoft). Only the possibility that ‘backward’ China might get the i-Phone before ‘advanced’ Korea finally kicked the ROKG into facing down the duopoly and opening the door last year. And now suddenly, smart phones are the rage. [Yet I find that Koreans are so devoted to the success of the chaebol, that they seem unwilling to act as rational consumers pushing for more choice (imports) and lower prices (due to import competition). It was national prestige – that Korea should beat less advanced China – that finally got the i-Phone in. This is frustrating to no end as a consumer here – it would sure be nice if a bottle of Heinekin didn’t cost $2.50 in a grocery store. But the Korean media – also a massive corporate monster tied to government elites – have disseminated this myth that what is good for Samsung is good for Korea, and Koreans have drunk that agit-prop kool-aid to the dregs.)
4. Korea really needs to bolster the US alliance in the wake of the spiraling costs of the GWoT. Here is where Korean myopia is the worst, and where Korea is so badly served by its self-congratulatory, parochial media that doesn’t report on the rest of the world they way it needs to. Most Koreans are blithely unaware of their extreme geopolitical vulnerability, which I blame on a media relentlessly dedicated to overhyping Korea’s importance in world politics. The US is Korea’s most important ally – it’s only really. The US alliance backstops Korean security in what is a terrible geographic environment. Korea is small, divided, encircled by great powers, and has poor relations with all its neighbors. Without the US in the background, Korea would have lost the Dokdo squabble years ago, e.g. To make it worse, the US is burned out after two wars and a brutal recession. Only 41% of Americans now believe we should fight for Korea anymore. USFK has gotten smaller and smaller in last few decades, and it is repositioning itself away from the DMZ in order to avoid getting immediately pulled into any conflict. And there is a coming defense retrenchment in the US too, because US defense spending is simply incommensurate with the size of its budget deficit. I would be surprised if the US still has forces here by 2020, unless they are completely subsidized by the ROK. The national security case for the FTA strikes me as so obvious, that claiming US beef has BSE or that US cars are ‘low quality’ is just suicidally foolish.