South Korea gets short end of U.S. trade stick

South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol holds first official news conference, after taking office in May, to mark 100 days in office, in Seoul, South Korea August 17, 2022. Chung Sung-Jun/Pool via REUTERS - RC21YV9WUCRJ

HONG KONG, Oct 3 (Reuters Breakingviews) - To many, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol's first official visit to the United States last month was a diplomatic damp squib. Besides his embarrassing hot mic gaffe and other fumbles, there was much fuss about fostering closer ties when the opposite may be happening.

At first glance, the two countries look aligned: South Korea wants to reduce dependence on its top trading partner, China, and export more chips and high-tech goods to other countries; at the same time, the United States, its number two trading partner, is trying to decouple supply chains from the People's Republic. Yet two policies in Washington expose deep rifts.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act eliminates federal tax credits for electric cars and certain components made outside of North America, disadvantaging companies including Hyundai Motor (005380.KS). A separate CHIPS Act is promising $53 billion in subsidies for Samsung Electronics (005930.KS), SK Hynix (000660.KS) and others to manufacture in the United States and is sparking fears over South Korea's competitiveness.

It hits a raw nerve just as demand for Korean goods is weakening with the global slowdown. Exports have underpinned the rapid development of its $1.8 trillion economy: Last year’s $645 billion of outbound shipments powered half of GDP growth, per The Korea International Trade Association.

Yet the country recorded a trade deficit in September for the sixth consecutive month. Semiconductors, a fifth of total exports, fell 5.7% year-on-year. The won has lost more than 20% of its value against the U.S. dollar this year. While falling oil and commodity prices should ensure an overall current account surplus this year, the longer-term risks are writ large.

A revival of American high-tech manufacturing will come at the expense of the trade-dependent Asian economy. Thanks to strong demand for South Korean-made electric cars, batteries and auto parts, shipments to the United States jumped 16% year-on-year in September. Those exports, which totaled some $96 billion last year, now look under threat. Big shifts today will have outsized effects on South Korea’s trade position down the road.

Unbalanced: South Korea is reeling from six months of trade deficits

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own. Refiles to add link.)

CONTEXT NEWS

South Korea’s trade deficit was $3.77 billion in September, the sixth consecutive month in the red. The figure hit a record $9.47 billion the previous month.

Exports grew 2.8% year-on-year, official data show, less than the 18.6% increase for imports.

The South Korean won has weakened more than 20% against the U.S. dollar since the start of the year, making it one of the worst-performing major currencies in Asia.

Editing by Antony Currie and Katrina Hamlin

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Robyn Mak joined Reuters Breakingviews in 2013. Previously, she was a Research Associate for the Global Policy Programs at the Asia Society in New York where she focused on US-Iran relations, US-Myanmar relations and sustainability issues in Asia. She has also worked as a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC and interned at several consulting firms, including the Albright Stonebridge Group. She holds a masters degree in international economics and international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a magna cum laude graduate of New York University.