WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In what's likely to be one of his final acts as the U.S. commerce secretary, Gary Locke opened a three-day visit to Seoul on Wednesday, part of his campaign to win approval for a long-stalled trade pact with South Korea.
In March, President Obama tapped the former Democratic governor of Washington as his next ambassador to China, though the Senate has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing. Key GOP senators have promised to block a vote on Locke's successor until they believe progress is being made in advancing the Korean agreement.
Backers of the pact, the largest of its kind since Congress signed off on the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, say the reduction of Korean tariffs and quotas would add up to $11 billion to the U.S. economy each year.
But the administration's support for the deal has angered labor allies, who fear it will lead to a loss of U.S. jobs.
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For supporters, the deal is of particular importance to Washington, which sends apples and cherries and other products to Korea, and regards it as one of its top export markets. As the governor of the highly trade-dependent state, Locke worked hard to expand business ties with Korea and other countries.
Locke made the trip -- billed as "a fact-finding mission" -- with a four-member House delegation, including Republican Rep. Dave Reichert and Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott from his home state, along with Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel and Joseph Crowley of New York.
Locke said the deal will support tens of thousands of U.S. jobs and open Korea's $580 billion services market to U.S. companies.
In addition, he said, it would eliminate Korean tariffs on 95 percent of American exports of industrial and consumer goods within five years and immediately scrap Korean tariffs on more than two-thirds of U.S. agricultural exports.
Reichert, a longtime advocate of free-trade agreements, founded the bipartisan U.S.-Korea FTA (Free Trade Agreement) Working Group to broaden support for the agreement on Capitol Hill. He teamed up with Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma to get the support of 88 members of Congress in urging the Obama administration to bring the agreement to Congress for a vote.
Last month, after Reichert attended a meeting of the President's Export Council at the White House, he called trade agreements "a cost-free way to create good-paying U.S. jobs and boost economic growth by opening new markets for U.S. goods and services." But he said Obama's goal of doubling exports by 2014 cannot be done without opening new markets, including in Korea.
Korea already is the United States' seventh largest trading partner and a fast-growing market: U.S. goods exported to Korea through February of this year were up 11 percent compared to the same period in 2010, according to the Commerce Department.
Locke called Korea, which has the world's 12th largest economy, "a vital ally, a strong friend and an important economic partner." And he said the trade pact is "a win-win" for both the U.S. and Korea.
"This agreement will strengthen our partnership and take it to the next level, by lowering tariffs and creating a more level playing field for businesses in both countries," Locke said.
At a hearing of the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee earlier this month, McDermott said the trade pact would create more than 277,000 new U.S. jobs.
"In Washington, where Mr. Reichert and I reside, we catch a lot of fish and produce a lot of agriculture and timber," he said. "The Korea FTA is expected to create 1,500 new jobs in these sectors alone."
President George W. Bush began negotiating the agreement, but the White House contends that it's been improved by Obama.
Not all of Congress are sold on the deal.
California Rep. George Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, noted that the pact "was almost entirely negotiated by the Bush administration" and predicted that it would result in a net reduction of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
On Wednesday, Locke and members of the delegation met with the president of the Republic of Korea, Lee Myung-Bak and they discussed the trade pact with top officials. In addition, they met with Korean executives and the board of governors of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea and had an afternoon tea with Korean university students.
Today, Locke is expected to meet with his Korean counterpart, the Minister of Knowledge Economy Choi Joong-Kyung. And Locke and the congressional delegation will meet with members of Korea's National Assembly and tour a facility owned by Pantech, one of the largest mobile phone makers in Korea. If the agreement is approved, Locke said, Pantech is expected to quadruple its purchase of U.S. products by 2015.
* Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009; email@example.com