Trump had nice things to tweet Friday morning about his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-In. Hours later, standing just a few feet from the foreign leader, Trump slammed the country for its trade practices.
The president welcomed South Korea’s cooperation on confronting the North Korean nuclear threat, even as he criticized the country for exporting more to the United States than it imports, restricting sales of U.S. autos, and enabling China in circumventing global trade rules.
“From when the U.S.-Korea trade deal was signed in 2011 to 2016 — and you know who signed it, you know who wanted it — our trade deficit with South Korea has increased by more than $11 billion. Not exactly a great deal,” Trump said.
The U.S. ran a $17 billion trade deficit in goods and services with South Korea in 2016, with a $27.7 billion deficit in goods offset only somewhat by a $10.7 billion surplus in services.
The newly elected Moon had come to the United States for his first foreign trip as president. But while Trump praised South Korea for its cooperation on security issues and expressed confidence in an improving the economic relationship, he didn't pull any punches.
He called on South Korea to open its markets to American cars and “to stop enabling the export of dumped steel.”
Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which represents steel companies as well as workers, says that some ultra-cheap Chinese steel finds its way through the South Korean market into the United States, circumventing restrictions the U.S. has placed on these products.
South Korea is the second-largest supplier of steel to the United States. The Trump administration is currently considering what could be sweeping restrictions on the import of steel into the United States, in an effort to protect U.S. national security.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in May that he hoped the report recommending action on the topic would be submitted to the president before the end of June. However, industry executives and Congressional staffers say the report may have been delayed due to pushback from the downstream industries, which would experience higher prices when they purchase steel to make their products.
As a candidate, Trump had called for ripping up the free trade agreement Korea signed with the United States five years ago, calling it a “horrible deal” that left America “destroyed.” Speaking with Reuters in April, Trump once again called the deal "horrible."
Speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Moon pledged to reevaluate barriers that kept American products out of the Korean market.
In his tweet Friday morning, Trump once again referenced the deal. “Just finished a very good meeting with the President of South Korea. Many subjects discussed including North Korea and new trade deal!” he wrote.
Myron Brilliant, head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has said that tearing up the United States free trade deal with Korea would be a mistake. In a recent article for Business Insider, he argued that with the Korean economy picking up and more Korean tariffs set to expire in the next few years, Korean imports of U.S. products are rising.
“To the extent [the deal] has fallen short, it is largely because it hasn’t been rigorously enforced,” Brilliant said.