The U.S.-South Korea relationship has traditionally been characterized as a security alliance, meeting the interests of both countries for a stable Korean Peninsula. Economically, Korea was a major recipient of U.S. development assistance after the Korean War. The U.S. also provided non-reciprocal preferential trade treatment, which played an important role in Korea’s economic development. After Korea’s unprecedented economic development, the economic relationship between the two countries progressed from mere donor-recipient relations. The U.S.-Korea economic partnership culminated in the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS FTA), which came into effect in 2012.
During the past 70 years, the U.S. has become the second most important export destination and the third most important importer for Korea. Korea has also risen to be the sixth largest trading partner for the U.S. During these years, Korea has also benefited from common values shared with the U.S., such as democracy, rule of law, and an open and free market economy. Two years into the Trump administration, the U.S.-Korea economic relationship is facing another turning point. Trump is a game changer, trying to alter the global trading system and its relation to China. Korea has been only partially affected by his grand scheme so far. However, Trump specifically blamed the KORUS FTA as a major contributing factor to the U.S.’ huge trade deficit and domestic job losses in manufacturing. As a result, the KORUS FTA was amended. Various protectionist measures, such as Section 201 tariffs on washing machines and solar panels as well as Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum, could have a substantial impact on Korea. Rising protectionism in the U.S. is a grave concern for Korea considering the significance of the U.S. to the Korean economy.
This chapter explores U.S.-Korea economic relations two years into the Trump administration—too short a time to make definitive statements such as whether the relationship has deteriorated or not. The chapter is organized as follows. Section 2 describes the economic relations between Korea and the U.S., focusing on trade and investment. Section 3 covers the KORUS FTA renegotiations, which were recently settled. It includes what was decided and the implications for the Korean economy. Section 4 summarizes the protectionist measures that the Trump administration has imposed and how these measures would impact Korea, adding a simple empirical analysis that investigates whether the U.S. trade balance with Korea improved over the two years. Section 5 concludes the chapter.