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Korea raises cautious hopes for exemption from US steel tariffs

March 19, 2018 - 18:28 By Yonhap

South Korea's commerce minister on Monday raised cautious hopes for getting an exemption from the United States over proposed tariffs on Korean steel products, as negotiators engage in last-minute lobbying to minimize the impact on the local industry.

Paik Un-gyu, minister of trade, industry and energy, said South Korea has been negotiating with US officials through multiple channels to earn a reprieve from the 25-percent steel duties, which are set to go into effect on March 23.

South Korean trade minister Kim Hyun-chong has been in Washington D.C. to have closed meetings with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and other policymakers to get Seoul exempted from the planned duties. Yoo Myung-hee, who led the third round of talks to amend the free trade agreement with the US last week, extended her stay throughout this week to assist his outreach efforts.

"We are making efforts to get country-specific exemptions (from the steel tariffs). I hope to get a good result from the negotiations within this week," Paik told reporters in Seoul. "Although the US views (South Korea) as an ally, there are concerns over the global oversupply of steel and we are working hard on that part."

Paik Un-gyu, minister of trade, industry and energy, speaks during a working group meeting tasked with drawing up the basic energy plan in Seoul on March 19, in this photo provided by the ministry. (Yonhap)

South Korea sold 3.6 million tons of steel products to the US last year, making it the No. 3 steel exporter following Canada and Brazil, according to the Department of Commerce.

Despite the military and economic alliance with the US, South Korea is in a more difficult situation than other nations due to its high volume of steel imports from China, which is blamed for flooding the global market with cheap products.

South Korean officials have said they will make it clear that the country has been reducing its steel production to address the global supply glut and is not serving as a backdoor for Chinese steel to reach US markets.

While the negotiations for the steel tariffs and a new trade deal are underway at the same time, Paik said Seoul is engaging in those talks with "various possibilities in mind."

In regard to concerns over rising pressure on the Korean side to give more to satisfy American negotiators in the trade talks, Paik said Seoul won't make unilateral concessions to US demands at the negotiating table.

In the past round of talks, the US has called for enhancing market access to the Korean auto market and strengthening rules of origins.

Aside from outreach efforts for the country-specific exemptions, the Seoul government said it will work with steel exporters to help them get exclusions for their products from the list of tariffs. The US Commerce Department will decide on exclusions for certain products that are not sufficiently produced in the US, which could last up to 90 days.

Trade tensions have spiked at a politically sensitive time when close consultations are needed between the traditional allies to arrange summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to help resolve the nuclear standoff. Amid a flurry of diplomatic efforts, Trump has called on South Korean negotiators to "show flexibility" in the trade negotiations.

The US is South Korea's second-largest trading partner after China, with bilateral trade reaching $119.3 billion in 2017, according to government data. (Yonhap)