SEOUL — South Korea’s trade community is on the defensive after President Trump’s renewed call to terminate a free-trade agreement with the country, which many experts here see as a puzzling move during an inopportune time of heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
Earlier this month, Trump instructed advisers to prepare to withdraw from the agreement, also known as Korus. He seemed to be making good on a threat he had floated since April, when he claimed that the deal, now in its fifth year, was “horrible” and left America “destroyed.”
The man who negotiated the free trade agreement, or FTA, for South Korea vigorously disputes that, and argues that the timing couldn’t be worse.
“South Korea has been an adamant ally to the United States for the last 70 years. Now, North Korea is provoking and China is expanding their power, flexing muscles,” said Choi Seok-young, who is now ambassador to the United Nations. “We don’t quite understand what is the main purpose of Mr. Trump attacking Korea by terminating Korea-U.S. FTA at this critical time.”
His American counterpart, Wendy Cutler, warns that an American pullout from the agreement would likely drive South Korea into a closer economic relationship with China.
The White House has not made a formal announcement on terminating the deal. In fact, days after reports surfaced of Trump’s move to withdraw, the United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer contradicted Trump, telling reporters that the administration wants to negotiate the deal and make “some amendments” instead.
The uncertainty may be why, at least in part, that the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has not yet publicly responded to Trump’s latest threat.
Since Trump’s election, officials here have stressed that the agreement, while not perfect, is designed to be mutually beneficial. Trump’s consistent criticism of the deal has left South Korean trade…