WASHINGTON, D.C. (Oct. 14, 2011) — Republic of South Korea President Lee Myung-bak was in the United States this week and at one point visited Orion Township, Michigan with President Barack Obama to tour a General Motors Assembly plant that produces the new Chevrolet Sonic subcompact.
The White House Office of the Press Secretary stated that the Chevrolet Sonic is the first GM-engineered subcompact that GM has built in the United States since a vehicle launched nearly four decades ago, and the only subcompact car currently sold in the U.S. that is built in the U.S.
The Sonic was originally engineered for GM Korea, but is now being assembled in Michigan. Two years ago, during GM’s bankruptcy restructuring, the plant the President will visit in Orion, Michigan was set to be closed down. The subcompact expertise and joint venture with GM Korea has saved the Orion plant and its 1,750 jobs.
At the beginning of his administration, President Obama made the very tough and unpopular decision to restructure GM and Chrysler – a decision that saved over a million American jobs and revitalized an entire American industry. In the year before GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, the auto industry shed over 400,000 jobs. Since these companies emerged from their restructurings, the American auto industry has created 128,000 jobs.
This week, Congress passed three trade agreements that the President fought to strengthen for American workers, along with Trade Adjustment Assistance. These agreements will create tens of thousands of American jobs and level the playing field for American automakers.
The President believed that the 2007 agreement with Korea did not go far enough to provide new market access to U.S. auto companies and to level the playing field for American workers. So the President worked with President Lee to make a number of important improvements to the U.S.-Korea Trade Agreement including strengthening enforcement and protections from sudden, harmful import surges and eliminating non-tariff barriers that severely restricted access to the South Korean market and raised the cost of producing vehicles for that market.
In addition, the Korea agreement will immediately cut Korean tariffs on U.S. autos in half (from 8 percent to 4 percent) and fully eliminate them within five years. The Korea trade agreement passed with the support of the Big Three, the UAW, and bipartisan members of Congress.
The Sonic enterprise shows not just how the President’s decision to save the American auto industry is keeping plants open across the Midwest, it also illustrates how U.S.-Korea economic ties work for American workers. That’s what the Korea trade agreement does on a larger scale.
The U.S.-Korea economic relationship is not just about exporting goods and services to Korea, it is about Korea investing in U.S. manufacturing. For example, LG Chem is making lithium ion batteries in Holland, Hyundai Mobis is building suspension modules in Detroit, and Mando is building a new R&D center for brake and steering systems in Novi.
“Today I brought a good friend and one of our closest allies, President Lee of South Korea,” said Obama. “Some of you may know, President Lee has got a remarkable story. He grew up a little ways from Detroit, but he embodies that same spirit that Detroit is all about.
“Through sheer grit and determination, he worked his way from the humblest beginnings. The South Korea of his childhood was an extraordinarily poor country. But he worked his way up, worked his way up, went to school while cleaning streets, and eventually went on to run a Hyundai machinery plant — so he knows a little bit about cars — then the whole company, and ultimately was elected the President of the Republic of Korea. And this is a country that’s staged one of the world’s greatest economic comebacks that we’ve ever seen.”
Lee called Obama one of his closest friends.
“As you know, the global economy is going through some tough times, and so there’s one thing on the minds of both President Obama and I, and that is jobs,” said Lee. “It is about creating good, decent jobs, and it is about keeping those jobs. And this is what keeps us awake.”
Lee said that as soon after becoming President of Korea, he visited a GM Korea factory twice. It was nearly a decade ago that Korean Daewoo Motors went bankrupt and General Motors stepped in to save the company. Now known as GM Korea its engineers from helped make the Chevy Sonic possible. The collaboration also helped save the Detroit plant and nearly 1,750 jobs.
Lee expressed being impressed by the Detroit factory operations. He was impressed by the IT technology and the pro-environment factory environment.
“You have the highest standards, and you’re building excellent cars here in this factory,” said Lee. “And I am confident that this factory is going to continue, and it’s going to make good cars, and your lives are going to be good. And I’m sure — and I’m confident in the future.”
He said the KORUS FTA soon be implemented won’t mean their jobs will be exported somewhere else. “I am here with President Obama today because I want to give this promise to you, and that is that the KORUS FTA will not take away any of your jobs. Rather it will create more jobs for you and your family, and it is going to protect your jobs. And this is the pledge that I give you today.”