WASHINGTON — While Kia imported its millionth vehicle from South Korea to Washington state's Port of Tacoma in August, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland wants to see more American cars exported to Seoul, the city where she was born in 1962.
"If you walk around Seoul, you don't see very many cars that aren't Hyundai or Kia, so there's an opportunity for us," she said. "If we can get access to the automobile market in Korea, it means a lot of American jobs."
Strickland wants Congress to pass the long-stalled trade pact between the United States and South Korea. In her region, it's an easy call: "Washington is the most trade-dependent state in America, and we are a port city."
She may soon get her wish. After languishing for four years, the proposed agreement could be headed for a showdown vote in Congress in the next month or so — and backers hope it happens before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visits the White House for an official state dinner Oct. 13.
President Barack Obama formally sent the pact to Congress on Monday, along with proposed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. He called the Korean free-trade pact "a landmark agreement."
"The agreement levels the playing field for U.S. businesses, workers, farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, investors and service providers by offering them unprecedented access to Korea's nearly $1 trillion economy," Obama said.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said the trade deals would be "a top priority for the House" and would be considered quickly.
"Today we have overcome a crucial hurdle to helping put Americans back to work," he said.
If the deal is approved, Washington state — where one of every three jobs is linked to international trade — would start sending a lot more of its products to South Korea, including sweet cherries, pears, apples, potatoes, wine and airplanes.
Despite opposition from labor unions, the agreement has strong backing from the state's congressional delegation. And with South Korea already ranking as Washington state's fourth-largest trading partner, proponents say the deal could be a real boon for all of the Pacific Northwest.
"I actually think that Washington, of all the states in the country, stands to benefit the most," said Eric Schinfeld, president of the Washington Council on International Trade, a group that lobbies Congress on behalf of businesses in the state.
Under the agreement, South Korea immediately would eliminate its 24 percent tariff on sweet cherries, and its 45 percent tariff on most apples would be phased out over 10 years. Washington state is among the nation's largest producer of both cherries and apples.
Scrapping the tariff on cherries would make them about $1 a pound cheaper for South Koreans and would result in more sales, said Mark Powers, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, Wash.
"That's the hope, and that's the expectation," he said, adding that sales have been rising in South Korea even with the tariffs. "It's an awesome market. It's growing rapidly. They really love the cherries that we're selling."
Representatives of many labor and environmental groups, including the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, have consistently opposed the pact, arguing that it would lead to more jobs going overseas. They also object to working conditions in South Korea, saying there have been repeated challenges to unionizing activities.
Noting that the administration of President George W. Bush negotiated the South Korean trade pact, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at a news conference recently that "old Bush-era deals are not the answer." He called for a "new approach" to international trade, "not the same broken deals that send jobs offshore and benefit multinationals but not working people."
Schinfeld, who was on Capitol Hill recently to meet with members of Washington's congressional delegation, said that three pending trade pacts — with South Korea, Panama and Colombia — are "definitely Number One" atop the list of the trade council's issues.
"We're very optimistic," he said. "It's hard with this Congress. Even the most rational things sometimes have gotten caught up in politics. We've been hopeful now for a while on these free-trade agreements, but certainly we seem to be in the end game."
President Barack Obama, who has long touted the benefits of a deal with South Korea, called on Congress to approve the pact when he announced his $447 billion jobs plan in September.
"If Americans can buy Kias and Hyundais, I want to see folks in South Korea driving Fords and Chevys and Chryslers," he said.
Strickland said she backs Obama's plan to try to double all U.S. exports by 2015.
"It acknowledges that 90 percent of the world's consumers do not live in America," Strickland said. "And we have to do a better job of coming up with trade agreements that allow us better access to different markets, especially with South Korea. Over 20 million people alone live in Seoul, and that society is becoming more affluent by the day. And there's just a big opportunity to really develop ties with that market."
Congressional leaders have been meeting with the White House in an attempt to finalize details on a vote. And Obama is expected to discuss the agreement with the South Korean president, who visited Washington state just last week, when he arrives in Washington, D.C., later this month.
Passing the deal before the South Korean president arrives in Washington "would be a tremendous reaffirmation of our alliance with that key country," Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a recent hearing on trade issues.
Many members of Congress hope that Obama will have signed the agreement by the time of the upcoming state dinner.
"If it's going to happen, frankly, it better happen in the next couple weeks," Powers said of a deal. "Otherwise, the window closes, and it could be another couple years before the stars align and the politicians do what they need to do."
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