To prod lawmakers to approve the long-stalled U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement, the South Korean government is turning to its secret weapon in the United States: Korean-Americans.
The South Korean government has paid the public relations firm Edelman $10,000 per month since September to reach these voters with ads in both English and Korean endorsing the trade deal.
The spots have run on Facebook and Google and in newspapers read by Korean-Americans. They tout the economic benefits of the pact such as more jobs for both countries and cheaper Korean imports.
They urge supporters to call lawmakers and forward information about the pact to family and friends.
“Korean Americans have an important story to tell regarding the importance of ratifying KORUS FTA,” read one flier distributed in the community.
The campaign is the first time the South Korean government has fully mobilized Korean-Americans to help lobby Congress, according to Tami Overby, the vice president for Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is also mustering support in Congress for the Korean pact. The chamber has a coalition dedicated to pushing the Korea FTA and is hosting events around the country in support of the deal.
Overby said the South Korean government had previously looked into a similar grass-roots effort regarding a visa program, but it was not on the scale of the free-trade agreement.
Overby said that while Korean-Americans are often active in their local business communities, “they have not been politically active.” Using social media to reach this segment of the population makes sense “because Koreans love technology and the Internet.” She added that the initiative is also helping the South Korean Embassy build a database of Korean-Americans.
Edelman’s filings with the Justice Department, required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, detail the media outreach by the firm since September.
According to the documents, the contract with Edelman requires the firm “to head up both an advocacy effort in support of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) and an outreach program to engage Korean Americans.”
Edelman stated that it had constructed an advocacy website, created and launched bilingual advertising, and produced banners and promotional materials “to highlight the Embassy’s efforts in support of KORUS FTA.”
For example, one Facebook spot states, “Korea-US: a 60 year bond. Forged by struggle and sacrifice, the Korea-U.S. relationship is like none other. Make it even stronger with Korea-U.S. free trade.”
Another ad displays two running shoes and says: “What do they have in common? You could purchase them at lower prices with the Korea-U.S. Free Trade agreement.”
A third spot shows smiling Korean-Americans and declares: “As Korean Americans we know the importance of the U.S. Korea relationship. Now it’s time to strengthen it with free trade.”
An Edelman official said the company could not comment on ongoing work it was doing for a client.
Ken Min, the general manager of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the U.S., said that in the past five years Korean-Americans have made strides politically, electing more of their own to local public office.
“Our economic power was strong; now our political power is coming up,” he said. The Korean chamber, which represents Korean companies with operations in the U.S., has sent letters in support of the free-trade pact to more than 70 lawmakers who sit on relevant trade subcommittees in the House and Senate as well to leadership in both parties.
Despite the increase in political awareness, there are no Korean-Americans serving in Congress. The 30-member Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, which Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) heads, has not taken a position on the trade agreement.
The lobbying effort comes as lawmakers and the administration have been debating how to proceed with free-trade deals.
Although the Obama administration and South Korean officials reached an agreement on the trade deal last year, Republican leaders have been reluctant to move ahead until the White House agrees to proceed with other free-trade pacts with Colombia and Panama. Meanwhile, some Democrats and labor leaders have been opposed to the pacts, which they say will result in the loss of U.S. jobs.
The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday on the South Korea trade agreement.
Last year, the South Korean government beefed up its lobbying effort, bringing on a number of top K Street firms, including Singer Bonjean Strategies, Akin Gump Straus Hauer & Feld, and the Glover Park Group.
In recent filings with the Justice Department, Glover Park Group officials documented that they had spent much of the winter reaching out to Congressional offices trying to arrange meetings with South Korean Embassy officials. For example, the filings note that on Jan. 25, embassy officials met with Daniel Sepulveda, a senior adviser to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Although not as large a share of the population as some other ethnic groups, Korean-Americans are concentrated in a handful of electorally important states, including California, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Washington.
The Korean-American population stood at just more than 1 million people in the 2000 census, according to the website of the National Association of Korean Americans. That represented a 35 percent increase from the 1990 census.
Overby, who has accompanied the South Korean ambassador on a tour of the United States to promote the trade pact, said interest in the trade agreement comes from surprising areas such as Ocala, Fla., where South Korean delegations have visited because of their interest in local racehorses. An 8 percent tax on the sale of those horses would be eliminated under the free-trade agreement.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.