The American political system faced a tough test in the first week of September when U.S. President Donald Trump proposed withdrawing from the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). Thankfully, the system passed. Trump was forced to backpedal in the face of near-universal condemnation from trade and foreign policy experts, the Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbies, Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, governors whose states would be hurt, and some senior administration members who quietly voiced their concerns. In the middle of all this, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s test of an enormous bomb made Trump’s plan look even more reckless.
Trump dropped the plan—at least for now. The good news, then, is that the American system is still able to constrain the president, even one who combines extreme willfulness with intense disdain for expertise. The bad news is that, as some experts fear, the KORUS withdrawal plan could come back into the spotlight at any time.
That fear is valid, given that Trump really did intend to withdraw from KORUS rather than just send a threatening signal, according to our sources in Washington. Axios reported it was “as close as it gets to a done deal.” Consider the sequence of events: On June 30, South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited Trump in Washington. The preset agenda focused on the threat from North Korea, the possible deployment of THAAD missile defense systems by South Korea, and trade issues. Renegotiating KORUS was not on the agenda.
Nonetheless, in an unusual step, Trump departed from the prepared agenda soon after the discussion began, telling Moon that the two countries would renegotiate KORUS immediately. Moon did not acquiesce, but that didn’t stop Trump from making a unilateral announcement at their joint press conference later in the day that KORUS renegotiation would soon begin. Moon kept a diplomatic silence then, but the next day, he told South Korean reporters that there was no such agreement. Two weeks later,
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