President Trump isn’t happy with the United States’ bilateral trade agreement with South Korea.
His main concern, it seems, is that the United States has suffered a “trade deficit”. That means South Korea — a key ally in East Asia on security issues, not just trade — has been exporting more goods to the United States than it has been importing.
In 2016, this deficit was about $23.2 billion.
That’s a big figure, but the United States has a big economy. In context, it’s not much.
Before we get to why that matters, here’s a look South Korea’s trade balances with the world’s largest economies last year. It had surpluses with China ($37.5 billion), its main export customer, Hong Kong ($31.2 billion) and the United States ($23.2 billion), among others.
It had trade deficits of its own with some economically powerful countries, by the way, most significantly Japan (-$21.3 billion), Germany (-12.4 billion) and Saudi Arabia (-$10 billion). Take a look:
It’s important to note that trade balances sometimes vary based on the products each country sells and each country’s relative slice of the global economy, not necessarily trade agreements in their early stages. (China is an exporting powerhouse that sells mass quantities of cheap goods to almost everyone. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, sells pricey oil. The nature of that trade is already imbalanced).
It’s also critical to think about each country’s balance in the context of its overall trade with South Korea.
The United States has that $23 billion deficit, as Trump and others in the United States have noted recently. It imports about $66.4 billion from South Korea and exports about $43.2 billion. A key departure point is automobiles. (You don’t see many American cars on the roads here in Seoul, where I live). Regardless of why, the deficit represented about 21 percent of the overall trade in 2016.
That’s a significant (and growing) figure, but how does it compare relative to other countries?
When normalized, Egypt, Hong Kong, Turkey, Poland, India, Mexico, Belgium and Norway had more unbalanced trade relationships with South Korea than the United States did last year.
Here’s a look at South Korea’s various trade balances with the world’s largest economies, over time, as a percentage of each nation’s overall trade relationship. While South Korea enjoys a trade surplus with the United States, it’s relatively modest in the context of the overall volume — on par with Brazil, China and Thailand, for example.
I’m not saying Trump is wrong to worry about whether the United States has an equal trade relationship with this one trading partner. There’s just a piece of the picture, perhaps, missing from the discussion — even before you consider whether picking an economic fight with a regional security ally is smart policy right now.
[Image from Misaeng (season one, episode 11). It’s an old K-drama I’m just watching now.]