Responding to North Korea’s torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March, I blogged a series of recommendations – one being that we should ratify the long shelved Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). It has many economic benefits, and would demonstrate “no retreat by the U.S. from Northeast Asia,” I argued. One skeptical reporter responded with a “like that will happen.”

Well, this weekend KORUS got a shot of life. At the G20 summit in Toronto, President Obama and South Korean President Lee vowed to get it done over the next few months. Their announcement was couched in terms of Korean Peninsula tensions. Perhaps there’s a Foreign Intrigue reader in the White House? OK, probably not.

This morning the Washington Post tried to help the cause. It editorialized that progress by Europe and Canada on trade deals with Seoul is as threatening to American interests in Northeast Asia as Kim Jong-Il’s nukes and missiles. That’s a stretch, but the White House did admit that “we stand to lose about $30 billion in exports.” That’s a lot of good American jobs gone missing.

The Washington path forward is treacherous. Unlike 15-years ago, pro-trade Democrats are very rare. The Obama Administration, after years of opposition, will need at least cosmetic changes on autos and beef to sell. Opponent’s managed trade “solutions” are non-starters. The target date for wrapping-up renegotiations is the next G20 summit, November 11-12 in Seoul. That’s a week after the midterm elections –action before is unrealistic– so it’ll have to be submitted to a lame duck Congress for an OK. If House Democrats scrape by in November, I give that plan less than a 25 percent chance to success. Probability doubles to 50 percent if Democrats take a beating. Or it could be held and sent to a more growth-friendly Congress in 2011.

The President has stepped in front of the KORUS choir. Trade agreements demand presidential leadership, and President Obama is an inexperienced conductor. Opponents won’t roll over. The President has now raised the stakes that the U.S. and Korea will be on the same sheet of music come November. And then he has to deliver Democratic congressional leadership and some of its members. If he fails, relations with this vital ally are sure to be badly out of tune.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  He also writes a blog, Foreign Intrigue, on national security issues.

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