TOKYO — Seoul and Washington are hailing an agreement to revise their free-trade deal as a “win-win” after South Korea agreed to further open its auto market and the Trump administration said it would not impose steel tariffs on the country, the third-largest exporter of steel to the United States.
South Korea would have to limit its steel exports to 70 percent of the current level as part of the deal, which has been agreed to in principle.
The agreement removes the cloud of trade-related doubt that had been hovering over South Korea since President Trump came to office threatening to rip up the “job killing” free-trade deal between the security allies.
“The best result from a negotiation is when both sides leave the table feeling like they didn’t get everything they wanted. If the result is too lopsided in favor of one side, there might have to be a renegotiation later,” Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong said Monday in Seoul, adding that he hoped there would be no need for further renegotiations.
But, Kim said, there are always risks in the field of trade. “In my view, the risk will continue to exist as long as President Trump remains in office,” he told reporters.
The presidential Blue House called the deal a “perfect win-win,” echoing comments from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in an interview on Fox News on Sunday.
It marks the first successful renegotiation of a trade deal for the Trump administration, which used the threat of 25 percent steel tariffs at the bargaining table. Talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico continue.
The Trump administration agreed to exempt South Korea from the tariffs but stipulated that it could export only 2.86 million tons of steel to the United States each year, about 70 percent of its current volume. This appeared to be part of an effort to stop China from using South Korea as a conduit for steel exports to the United States.
“South Korea will reduce the amount of steel that they send into the United States as part of this. So I think this is an absolute win-win,” Mnuchin said on Fox News.
Kim said the deal would provide “predictability and stability” for South Korean steelmakers. The Korea Iron and Steel Association welcomed the exemption from the tariffs but called the cap on exports “regrettable.”
For its part, South Korea agreed to loosen the rules on U.S. automobiles coming into the country.
Trump had railed against the unbalanced auto trade as a sign of why the bilateral free-trade deal was a bad one.
South Korea enjoyed an $18 billion trade surplus with the United States last year, although that was down from $23 billion in 2016, according to South Korean government figures. Cars account for more than 70 percent of the surplus.
Under the revised agreement, U.S. automakers will be allowed to export 50,000 vehicles a year to South Korea, double the existing quota. Furthermore, they will have to meet only American safety and environment standards, not South Korean ones.
But this is unlikely to lead to a tangible change in consumer demand. American cars and trucks are not particularly popular in South Korea, partly because they are considered too big by local standards.
Only 10,000 U.S. vehicles were imported to South Korea last year, making up 7 percent of imports. European cars account for almost 80 percent of the imported-vehicle market.
Under the revised deal, the two sides agreed to keep tariffs on South Korean pickup trucks exported to the United States until 2041. However, no South Korean carmakers currently export pickup trucks to the United States.
Analysts said the revised deal, while not ideal, reflected the necessity to compromise for the greater good.
“Although this trade deal left many unfortunate gaps, I’d say South Korea avoided the worst-case scenario, considering that the U.S. was threatening to scrap the deal,” said Heo Yoon, professor of international trade at Sogang University’s Graduate School of International Studies.
South Korea cannot claim to have won in the steel tariff negotiations, he said. “From the U.S.’s point of view, the financial burden of the tariffs has simply been transformed into quantity restrictions,” he said. “It’s hard to say which is better or worse.”
For Japan, the flurry of negotiation with South Korea has been puzzling.
Like South Korea, Japan is a key U.S. security ally in Asia. Unlike South Korea, Japan’s leader enjoys a warm personal relationship with Trump.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had hoped that would translate into favorable treatment for Japan, but Japan was not granted an exemption from the steel tariffs.
“Mr. Trump’s view against Japan is bothersome,” the conservative Sankei newspaper wrote in an editorial. “He accused Japan of ‘taking advantage of the United States for so long’ and he hasn’t exempted Japan from the tariffs. What about that close relationship he’s supposed to have with Prime Minister Abe?”
Japan’s big-business lobby group complained that Japan, unlike Canada and Mexico and now South Korea, had not received an exemption on tariffs, calling it “regrettable” and urging the Abe government to keep trying.
But experts in Tokyo noted that Japan does not have a bilateral trade deal with the United States that the Trump administration can use to strike a bargain.
Trying to win a waiver from the steel and aluminum tariffs would legitimize the idea of the tariffs, said Kazuhito Yamashita, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.
“What’s wrong is wrong. Why doesn’t Japan point that out and attack?” he said, adding that the correct avenue for recourse is through the World Trade Organization.
But Japan is too “weak-kneed” to take on the Trump administration for fear of angering the U.S. president, Yamashita said. “Even though Japan-U.S. relations are important, the fact is that the U.S. is blocking free trade, so Japan should appeal to the WTO. This is a major diplomatic failure for Japan.”
Min Joo Kim in Seoul and Yuki Oda in Tokyo contributed to this report.