SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean trade officials braved snowstorms, ate instant noodles to save time and spent weeks hotel-hopping in Washington as they raced to overcome major trade hurdles with their U.S. ally ahead of high-stakes nuclear discussions with North Korea.
What was meant to be a week-long trip to Washington stretched into a four-week marathon, as dozens of Seoul officials sought to wrap up talks aimed at amending the six-year-old U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement known as KORUS, according to several South Korean officials with direct knowledge of the matter.
U.S. plans announced earlier this month to impose hefty tariffs on steel and aluminum imports added urgency to the trade negotiations. As the third-largest steel exporter to the United States, South Korea had a lot to lose from 25 percent tariffs.
Seoul also felt it couldn’t afford a protracted trade dispute with its most important ally at a time when the two need to work together to contain a nuclear-armed North Korea, the officials told Reuters.
“This had to work well,” a senior official at South Korea’s presidential Blue House told Reuters. “It was right to settle this as soon as possible because if this remains ahead of inter-Korean talks and U.S.-North Korea talks, it could unnecessarily complicate our relationship.”
U.S. President Donald Trump initially welcomed the breakthrough as a “great deal for American and Korean workers”, a marked turnaround from a year ago when he told Reuters he would either renegotiate or scrap what he called a “horrible” trade deal.
But Trump said on Thursday he may hold up signing it until after an agreement is reached with North Korea on denuclearisation, saying such a deal was “a very strong card” to ensure fairness on the new trade pact.
Trump is expected to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in May after the two Koreas hold their first summit in more than a decade in late April. All parties are expected to discuss the denuclearisation of North Korea.
“FINALLY WITHIN REACH”
Whenever South Korean President Moon Jae-in had a phone call with Trump to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue in recent months, Moon also raised the trade agenda, the Blue House official said.
In their latest call on March 16, while the two countries’ trade representatives were holding a third round of trade talks in Washington, Moon asked Trump to have a “keen interest” in the matter and work toward a speedy trade agreement before their respective summit meetings Kim, the Blue House said at the time.
Around that time, South Korean negotiators started to see a glimmer of hope they could save the trade pact, which has seen the U.S. goods trade deficit with South Korea double since 2012 when it took effect.
“The negotiations started to