South Korean, U.S. trade chiefs try to salvage deal
By KELLY OLSEN
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea and the United States held talks Monday in a bid to breathe new life into a free trade agreement that has languished unratified for more than three years as Washington pushes for greater market access for its cars and beef.
The meeting between South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk came as President Barack Obama and his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-bak aim for a resolution in time for their meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Seoul that starts Thursday.
The countries reached the agreement to slash tariffs and other barriers to trade in April 2007 after 10 months of tough negotiations. They signed the deal three months later, but it remains unratified by lawmakers in both capitals.
Obama said in June that he wanted the deal wrapped up so he can submit it to Congress for approval within a "few months" after his visit to Seoul. South Korea's National Assembly must also ratify the agreement for it to take effect.
"Negotiations are still under way and the situation is fluid," Kim told reporters. He said the two sides planned to meet again Tuesday.
Kirk did not meet with reporters. His office later issued a brief statement saying the talks would continue the next day.
The U.S. has said that the South Korean deal cannot go forward without addressing Seoul's overwhelming surplus in auto trade and improving access for imports of American beef.
Figures compiled by auto industry groups in South Korea show that the country exported 449,403 vehicles to the U.S. last year, while South Koreans purchased 6,140 vehicles made by American manufacturers based on vehicle registrations.
Those figures do not include vehicles produced in the United States last year by South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. nor those sold in South Korea by GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co., the South Korean unit of General Motors Co.
On beef, South Korea restricts imports from the United States based on the age of cattle as a precaution against meat potentially contaminated with mad cow disease. The U.S. says its beef is safe.
Trade chiefs Kim and Kirk met late last month in San Francisco and their deputies also held a series of talks beginning last week.
Bilateral trade between South Korea and the U.S. totaled $66.7 billion in 2009, down sharply from $84.7 billion in 2008 as global commerce suffered during the economic downturn.
Writing in The New York Times last week, Obama said the agreement with South Korea "could be worth tens of billions of dollars in increased exports and thousands of jobs for American workers."
He also lamented that U.S. businesses were losing out as other countries pursue free trade agreements with South Korea.
"But any agreement must come with the right terms," he said, referring to efforts by Washington and Seoul to clinch a final deal.
Adding particular urgency is a similar free trade deal South Korea signed with the European Union last month. The two sides are aiming to have it take effect in July of next year. Seoul and Brussels began negotiations after the South Korea-U.S. deal was concluded, but it is possible it could come into force sooner.
The U.S. free trade agreement with South Korea is not the only one gathering dust in Washington. Deals with Panama and Colombia also remain unratified. All were signed during the administration of previous President George W. Bush.
Suspicions regarding free trade, an issue seldom popular even in good times, have deepened in the U.S as the jobless rate has hovered near 10 percent following the global financial crisis and recession.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.