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President Trump surprised the world this week when he announced a truce on tariffs with Europe. But the administration could still slap Asia-based carmakers with tariffs on imported auto parts and vehicles. Companies like Kia, which is based South Korea, could be especially vulnerable. It has factories in the U.S. Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE visited a Kia plant on the Georgia-Alabama border, where people are worried.
JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Steve Tramell stands in the grass along Kia Boulevard, a four-lane highway in West Point, Ga. Tramell is mayor of the town, population 3,700. And these days, he's worried. The largest employer in his town is under pressure thanks to President Trump's threat of tariffs on imported auto parts and vehicles. Tramell looks across the road at a massive gray factory. Kia is written on the side in bold, red letters.
STEVE TRAMELL: As far as automobile manufacturing, we think it's a beautiful plant. It's got, you know, the Kia plants here and then Hyundai Mobis and then Hyundai Dymos, which are two of the suppliers, are directly to the left of it. It's a big, big facility.
KAUFFMAN: Kia says it's invested $1.6 billion into the 2,200-acre plant and the surrounding area. Tramell says in 2006, when Kia announced plans to open the plant, it was a big deal.
TRAMELL: The excitement in downtown was wild. The signs that were popping up in people's yards - thank Jesus for Kia (laughter) - you know, things like that. It was really neat.
KAUFFMAN: Today Kia says its plant in West Point and the nearby suppliers employ 14,000 full-time workers. Those jobs could be at risk from Trump's proposed tariffs. Kia would be hit in at least two ways. First, importing already made vehicles into the U.S. would be more expensive. Two-thirds of the vehicles Kia sells here come from other countries like South Korea and Mexico. And second, the company would pay more to import parts for the vehicles it makes in the U.S., like at this factory. Kia warns the tariffs would lead to job cuts right here in West Point.
Just down the road from the Kia plant, Des Carlisle is headed into a gas station. The 26-year-old is on a break from job hunting.
DES CARLISLE: Like, I just recently lost my job working out there - like, recently.
KAUFFMAN: Carlisle worked as a temp at the Kia plant. His job was to make sure people who painted the cars had the necessary supplies. Three months ago, Carlisle's contract ended. He worries any slowdown at Kia would hurt his friends and family.
CARLISLE: I got a lot of homeboys that work at plenty of these plants. Like, the whole Kia Boulevard, I've got homeboys out there.
KAUFFMAN: Carlisle says President Trump doesn't understand how auto tariffs could hurt the community here. Also at the gas station, Carl Michalski is on his way to work at Yanfang Interiors, where he's a production supervisor. The company makes door panels for the Sorento, Kia's midsize SUV. Michalski isn't worried about auto tariffs.
CARL MICHALSKI: It might get rough for a minute, but I think it's going to all work itself out in the best. China is going to come to the table and do what they're supposed to do.
KAUFFMAN: Michalski says he trusts Trump to handle the international trade dispute. Auto tariffs wouldn't just affect workers but potential car buyers, too, especially for Kia. Autotrader analyst Michelle Krebs says Kia depends on sales of less expensive, compact cars. And its customers tend to be younger with less money to spare.
MICHELLE KREBS: So if you add on the cost of a tariff, they would lose sales because it would be very difficult for consumers to afford even more.
KAUFFMAN: Krebs says car companies like Nissan and Hyundai face a similar scenario. And she says if prices go up and production slows, it could mean job cuts. That's why Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama filed a bill this week to delay the tariffs. They're among a growing number of politicians worried about an escalating trade war, and that may help explain why the EU managed to negotiate a truce on the tariffs aimed at Europe.
For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in West Point, Ga.
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