South Korea is Washington’s surprise heavyweight champion of influence-peddling.
Seoul spent an eye-popping $52 million on lobbying in 2017, according to a database of foreign lobbying registrations compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, and employed more than 20 lobbying and public relations firms.
South Korea far outspent all other foreign governments in 2017, with the Qatari government spending $15.7 million and the government of Saudi Arabia spending $14.2 million.
That’s surprising, considering the two oil-rich Gulf countries were in the middle of a full-blown lobbying war last year, with massive amounts of money pouring into Washington. South Korea nevertheless spent more than both governments combined.
Seoul’s lobbying dollars focused on trade—and it seemed to pay off. In March, the White House announced that it had successfully signed a revamped free trade deal with South Korea, which altered the terms of original U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement signed in 2012. The revised agreement includes terms to exempt South Korea from steel tariffs under Section 232, which President Trump has invoked to block steel imports from many countries including allies. South Korea in turn agreed to allow more imports of U.S. automobiles. And since the agreement marks Trump’s first major bilateral trade deal, which he has championed over multilateral agreements, it’s a deal that is unlikely to face further attacks from a president who views trade with suspicion.
The dramatic increase in South Korea lobbying was a direct result of Trump’s anti-trade tirades. On the campaign trail, he referred the the 2012 agreement as a "job-killing trade deal." One of his first acts as president was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have reduced trade barriers and set labor standards for 12 countries in the region. (South Korea was not a member of the TPP.)
“When Trump got elected, we saw an absolute surge in South Korea lobbying,” said Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, which tracks lobbying disclosures submitted to the Department of Justice through the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
In 2016, South Korea spent $40.3 million on lobbying, according to a forthcoming report by Freeman; by the next year, that amount had increased by almost $12 million. “You’re talking about more than a 25 percent increase in lobbying spending in just one year,” said Freeman. “A big reason for that is Trump himself.”
South Korea’s economy is the 11th largest in the world, and its economic success is based heavily on trade. Its largest trading partner is China, clocking in at $240 billion in 2017, but its trade with the United States still amounts to $120 billion. Seoul quickly implemented the 2012 free trade agreement, and “it became really an integral part of the national economic strategy,” said Fred Bergsten, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who previously served in the National Security Council and the U.S. Treasury Department.
“So when Trump came in and threatened to withdraw, it cause widespread dismay and even panic in Korea,” said Bergsten. “It put a lot of pressure on the government to maintain the agreement.”
While most of the expenditures are towards trade issues, Seoul also did some lobbying around national security issues, such as efforts to sustain the U.S. military base stationed there, and to promote that U.S.-made missile defense system recently deployed there despite strong objections from China.
“Our initial review found that the South Korean activity appeared to be in support of trade and tourism far more than the [North Korea] issue,” said Dan Auble, a senior researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics.
It’s not the first time a massive lobbying campaign has paid off for South Korea. The lead-up to the 2012 agreement also saw huge spike in spending. In 2010, the country forked over $39.9 million in lobbying and public relations fees.
Updated 12pm 8/14 to correct Korea's total trade figures with the United States and China. We regret the error.