U.S.-Korea trade deal resulted in growing trade deficits and more than 95,000 lost U.S. jobs

(This blog post is an update to a post from March 30, 2015).

When the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) was passed just over four years ago, President Obama said that the agreement would support 70,000 U.S. jobs. This claim was supported by a White House fact sheet that claimed that the KORUS agreement would “increase exports of American goods by $10 to $11 billion…” and that they would “support 70,000 American jobs from increased goods exports alone.” Things are not turning out as predicted. Far from supporting jobs, growing goods trade deficits with Korea have eliminated more than 95,000 jobs between 2011 and 2015.

Expanding exports alone is not enough to ensure that trade adds jobs to the economy. Increases in U.S. exports tend to create jobs in the United States, but increases in imports lead to job loss—by destroying existing jobs and preventing new job creation—as imports displace goods that otherwise would have been made in the United States by domestic workers. Thus, it is changes in trade balances—the net of exports and imports—that determine the number of jobs created or displaced by trade and investment deals like KORUS.

In the first four years after KORUS took effect, there was absolutely no growth in total U.S. exports to Korea, as shown in the figure below. Imports from Korea increased $15.2 billion, an increase of 26.8 percent. As a result, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea increased $15.1 billion between 2011 and 2015, an increase of 114.6 percent, more than doubling in just four years.

Chart 1

U.S.-Korea trade, 2011–2015 (billions of dollars)

Exports Imports Trade balance 
2011 $43.5 56.7 -13.2
2012 42.3 58.9 -16.6
2013 41.7 62.4 -20.7
2014 44.5 69.5 -25.0
2015 43.5 71.8 -28.3 
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The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Change, billions of dollars, and percent from 2011-2015
Imports: +$15.2 (26.8%)
Exports: $0 (0.0%)
Trade Bal.: -$15.1 (114.6%)

Source: Author's analysis of U.S. International Trade Commission Trade DataWeb

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Since exports to Korea were flat in the first four years since KORUS took effect, jobs supported by exports were, at best, unchanged in this period. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of Korean imports has eliminated tens of thousands of U.S. jobs. Using the trade and employment multipliers implied in the White House KORUS fact sheet, I estimate that the growth in the U.S. trade deficit with Korea between 2011 and 2015 has cost more than 95,000 U.S. jobs. Most of those jobs lost were in manufacturing (the growth of the manufacturing trade deficit was responsible for nearly three quarters, or 74.9 percent of the growth in the total U.S.-Korea trade deficit). In addition, the U.S. trade surplus in agriculture and primary commodities declined by $1.2 billion in this period, also contributing to growing trade-related job losses.

Trade deals do more than cut tariffs, they promote foreign direct investment (FDI) and a surge in outsourcing by U.S. and foreign multinational companies (MNCs). FDI leads to growing trade deficits and job losses. U.S. multinationals were responsible for more than one quarter (28.9 percent) of the U.S. trade deficit in 2012. Foreign multinationals operating in the United States (companies like Kia and Hyundai) were responsible for nearly half (45.7 percent) of the U.S. goods trade deficit in that same year. Taken together, U.S. and foreign MNCs operating here were responsible for nearly three-fourths (74.6 percent) of the total U.S. goods trade deficit in 2012.

U.S. exports of motor vehicles and parts to Korea increased by less than $1 billion between 2011 and 2015, but U.S. imports from Korea in this sector increased $10.6 billion in the same period. As a result, the trade deficit in vehicles and parts increased $9.6 billion in the first four years that KORUS was in effect. The growth of the vehicles and parts deficit was responsible for 85.0 percent of the increase in the U.S.-Korea manufacturing trade deficit, and nearly two-thirds (63.7 percent) of the increase in the total U.S. Korea trade deficit between 2011 and 2015.

Alarmingly, the KORUS agreement has not taken full effect and still retains some important U.S. tariffs that protect our domestic auto industry. When they expire in 2021, our trade deficit with Korea will undoubtedly worsen.

The administration has completed negotiations for the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 other nations in the Asia-Pacific region, including Malaysia, Vietnam, and Japan. Congress has approved fast-track, or trade promotion authority to facilitate its consideration of the TPP, without amendments, in the near future. The United States has also encouraged South Korea to join the TPPChina has also expressed interest in joining the TPP talks. The United States goods trade deficit with the 11 other members of the proposed TTP of $177.9 billion reduced U.S GDP by $284.6 billion (1.6 percent) and eliminated 2 million jobs in 2015.

Many members of the proposed TTP trade and investment deal have long histories of currency manipulation, dumping, and other unfair trade practices that have dramatically increased U.S. trade deficits and job losses, and yet the agreement fails to include enforceable disciplines on currency manipulation, which could nullify the benefits of the agreement. The TPP would significantly increase the threat that rapidly growing trade deficits and job losses in the United States would be locked in.

KORUS was the template for TPP. It is a broken model. If approved by Congress, this trade and investment deal will only result in more outsourcing by U.S. and foreign MNCs, rising trade deficits, even more trade-related job losses and downward pressure on U.S. wages. A multi-nation trade deal modeled on KORUS is a direct threat to the heart of U.S. manufacturing employment and domestic production. The United States should stop negotiating new trade deals and fix the ones we have.