SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean sales officials braved blizzards, ate instant noodles to save time, and spent weeks in Washington trying to overcome major trade barriers with their US allies.
What should be a week? The long trip to Washington stretched to a four-week marathon when dozens of Seoul officials tried to conclude talks on amending the six-year US-Korea Free Trade Agreement known as KORUS, as several South Korean officials with direct knowledge report Thing.
U.S. The plans announced earlier this month to impose heavy tariffs on steel and aluminum imports gave the trade negotiations additional urgency. As the third largest steel exporter to the US, South Korea lost a lot in 25 percent of tariffs.
Seoul also felt that it could not afford a protracted trade dispute with its key ally at a time when both would have to work together to stem a nuclear-armed North Korea, officials told Reuters.
"It had to work well," a senior official of South Korean President Blue House told Reuters. "It was right to settle this as soon as possible, because if this continues before the inter-Korean talks and talks between the US and North Korea, this could unnecessarily complicate our relationship."
U.S. President Donald Trump initially welcomed the breakthrough as a "big deal for US and Korean workers," a significant reversal of a year ago when he told Reuters that he would either negotiate or scrap a new "terrible" trade deal.
But Trump said Thursday he could sign it up to an agreement with North Korea on denuclearization. He said such a deal was "a very strong card" to ensure fairness in the new trade agreement.
Trump is expected to meet Kim Jong Un from North Korea in May after the two Koreas held their first summit in more than a decade at the end of April. All parties are expected to discuss the denuclearization of North Korea.
"Finally in Range"
Whenever South Korean President Moon Jae-in had a phone call with Trump to discuss North Korea's nuclear issue in recent months, Moon also lifted the trade agenda, Blue representative said House.
In their last appeal on March 16, while the trade agents of the two countries held a third round of trade talks in Washington, Moon asked Trump to have a "keen interest" in their cause and to work towards an early trade agreement at their respective summits Kim, said the Blue House back then.
Around that time, South Korean negotiators saw a glimmer of hope that they could rescue the Pact, which has doubled US trade deficit with South Korea since 2012, when it came into force.
"The negotiations started progressing around March 17, so our trading team decided to stay longer because they thought an agreement was finally approaching," said a South Korean senior official from the Ministry of Commerce.
The official and another salesman said nearly 30 South Korean negotiators had repeatedly had to move hotels in Washington if their journey had taken longer than expected, sometimes crowded into a hotel room to work on their next-day bargaining strategy.
"We lived mainly on instant noodles and quick kelp rice wraps that we bought in Korean supermarkets to save time," the official said.
The efforts culminated in a revised pact announced this week by the two countries that gives US automakers and pharmaceuticals more access to the South Korean market.
It also lifted the threat of a 25 percent US tariff on South Korean steel in exchange for quotas that will reduce Korean steel imports by about 30 percent.
"We have quickly eliminated potential conflicts between the two countries at a time when close cooperation between South Korea and the US is more important than ever," said a second Blue House official.
All South Korean officials interviewed by Reuters demanded not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
"AS COLD AS SIBERIA"
The talks have not started well as the US has "repeatedly asked us to unilaterally make concessions," South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong said in an interview live on Thursday in the Facebook of the Blue House.
"When we met for the first time to talk, the mood was as cold as Siberia and our meeting lasted only 21 minutes," Kim said, referring to US sales representative Robert Lighthizer. "Later, we came closer and our relationships evolved into something like a Bromance."
South Korea saw from the beginning concessions for the deal that were to survive, ahead of cars that accounted for more than 70 percent of its 2017 trade surplus with the United States.
"If the Free Trade Agreement were terminated and the prices for South Korean car exports increased by 8 percent, it would have been an absolute nightmare." The problem was, how do we sell a deal that does us any good? "Said a senior South Korean government official ,
"The steel issue has effectively opened up, we make concessions on cars, which we considered inevitable anyway, and are the first country to be exempted from steel tariffs, which has suddenly become a win-win situation."
(GRAPHIC: Nuclear North Korea – tmsnrt.rs/lE5yjF)
Reporting By Jane Chung and Christine Kim. Additional coverage by Cynthia Kim. Arrangement of Soyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast