Korea asks US for immediate talks on steel tariffs

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Korea asks US for immediate talks on steel tariffs

Trade Minister Yeo Han-koo speaks during a press briefing at the ministry in the Sejong Government Complex, Monday. Courtesy of Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

Quota-marred competitive edge of local steelmakers top concern

By Lee Kyung-min

The government has officially asked the United States to start talks on steel tariffs as recent developments on the matter between the United States and the European Union (EU) and Japan could hurt Korean steel companies’ business interests in the world’s largest economy, the country’s top trade negotiator said Monday.

“Because South Korea is a rival of the EU and Japan in the United States, I’ve strongly raised the necessity of negotiations with the United States on the matter,” the country’s top trade negotiator, Trade Minister Yeo Han-koo, said during a press briefing at the ministry in the Sejong Government Complex.

The reason behind Yeo’s rare statement is the United States and the EU recently reaching an agreement on Section 232 of national security tariffs the Trump administration placed on U.S. imports of steel, and Washington announcing ongoing talks on tariffs with Japan and the United Kingdom.

South Korea’s exclusion from these negotiations was because of Seoul’s earlier agreement with the Trump administration on a “quota limiting its steel exports” to the United States to 70 percent of the average volume between 2015 and 2017.

Such a ceiling allowed Korea-manufactured steel exports to avoid the 25 percent tariff a lot of other steel exporters faced from the Section 232 process. With semiconductors, batteries and shipbuilding, steel is one of the country’s backbone industries.

The ceiling was once considered an advantage over the EU and Japan, both of which were subject to a high 25 percent tariff due to the lack of a cap on export volumes.

“United States Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai and I had an understanding that steel issues were highly important and sensitive to Korea. We agreed on the need to continue talks on the issue,” Yeo said, noting this was an outcome of the sixth Korea-U.S. (KORUS) Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Joint Committee Meeting.

The top trade negotiator reiterated that Korea cannot remain complacent over the timeline of renegotiations, given the U.S.’s speedy resumption of tariff talks with the EU and Japan, with which Korea is in a fierce competition on the global market.

The U.S. began negotiations with the EU and Japan first, because Korea has been exporting to the U.S. without tariffs for the past four years, whereas the EU and Japan have been subject to the 25 percent surcharge, the minister explained.

“The U.S. steel industry remains sensitive about the issue. But we have continued to ask for early negotiations to resolve the Section 232 issue, as backed by robust demand for high-quality Korean steel products in the U.S. with the soaring investment of Korean manufacturing companies there,” he added.

Regarding the timing for negotiations, Yeo said; “For the time being, it’s too early to judge; however, because the USTR and U.S. Department of Commerce are involved on the matter simultaneously, we will try our best for an early start by maintaining minister-level communications.”

The Trump administration’s imposition of a 25 percent tariff on steel and 10 percent on aluminum was described at the time as a measure to safeguard national security that was coming under a heightened threat from imported goods. China was among the countries subject to the measure.

Some local observers say the U.S. is deliberately excluding China from the resumed tariff talks, thereby isolating the world’s second-largest economy from the international community.

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