S. Korea, U.S. struggle to bridge differences in final FTA talks

Posted on : 2007-03-27 09:21 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST

With a crucial deadline only six days away, top South Korean and U.S. negotiators struggled on Monday to narrow differences over agricultural and other key pending issues in their make-or-break free trade agreement talks.

"It's not easy to bridge differences," South Korea's chief negotiator Kim Jong-hoon told reporters after the first day of the talks. "We'll try to balance the interests of both sides but the prospects are not clear."

The 10-month-long negotiations between Seoul and Washington to forge a bilateral free trade agreement have down to the wire, with both sides still upbeat about the possibility of striking a deal by this weekend.

The goal is to take advantage of U.S. President George W. Bush's "fast-track" trade promotion authority which expires on July 1. That authority binds U.S. officials to submit a deal by April 2 for a mandatory 90-day congressional review for a simple yes-or-no vote without amendments.

Friday (Washington time), or Saturday morning (Seoul time) is the last working day before the April 2 deadline. South Korean officials said this week's negotiations will continue up to the U.S.-set deadline.

Kim said South Korea would never hastily sign a deal with the U.S. just to meet the end-of-March deadline.

"We'll take a resolute stand when the proposed deal falls short of our expectations or a situation arises for us to be forced into opening our rice market," he said, reiterating that rice, the Korean staple food, is a deal breaker.

This week's closed-door negotiations are led by ministerial-level officials, South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia.

Their mission is to make a "package deal" on those outstanding issues, which both sides said include automobiles, agricultural products, anti-dumping remedies and pharmaceuticals.

Despite the complexity of those pending issues, the sides are optimistic that a deal can be reached in time.

"We had meetings with pretty much nonstop since this morning ...

I think it's fair to say both sides are really working hard," Bhatia told reporters in a brief photo session. He declined to elaborate.

For the United States, South Korea is its only partner with which it can expect to forge a free trade pact before Bush's trade promotion authority expires. Ongoing U.S.-Malaysia FTA talks will not meet the deadline.

"I think Korea and the U.S. can conclude the negotiations as long as their top leaders have the political will for an FTA," Lee Sook-jong, a sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, said in an e-mail interview. "If negotiations fail, it would damage the Korea-U.S. relations and the cost will be greater for Korea than for the U.S."

The stakes are high. Some studies show that if a South Korea-U.S. deal is struck, it would boost bilateral trade by about 20 percent. Two-way trade reached US$74 billion last year.

For the U.S., a deal with South Korea would be its biggest since it launched the North American FTA with Mexico and Canada in 1994.

Out of a total of 17 categories under review, South Korea and the U.S. have so far closed three chapters -- competition, customs and government procurement -- and are "very close" to agreement on eight other areas, including financial services, labor and environment, both sides said.

The proposed FTA with the U.S. is unpopular among many South Koreans, especially farmers and factory workers who fear losing jobs in the face of cheap U.S. farm goods and high-tech industrial products.

It also poses a huge political risk for President Roh Moo-hyun struggling to shore up sagging public support ahead of December's presidential election.

Roh reconfirmed his support for an FTA with the U.S. in a meeting with farm leaders last week, according to a statement posted on the Website of his presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae.

"I've decided to move on with the Korea-U.S. FTA ... because I honestly believe that I am the only president who would do things that might hurt himself politically," Roh said in the statement, adding that his government plans to "extend assistance and post-FTA measures with determination."

Another big obstacle is a trade row over U.S. beef imports to South Korea. Although the issue isn't technically part of free trade negotiations, U.S. officials warn that their lawmakers won't approve a deal unless the beef issue is amicably resolved.

Seoul had banned U.S. beef imports for three years because of a mad cow disease scare. After agreeing to buy only boneless U.S. beef last year, it turned back three shipments totaling 22.3 tons after bone chips were found in them.

Before the 2003 import ban, South Korea was the U.S.'s third largest beef market, with annual purchases reaching $850 million.

Outside the meeting site, about two dozen protesters held a peaceful rally against what they called the "backroom" bargaining.

"Stop the secret FTA bargaining," Oh Jong-yeol, the group leader, said in a statement.

On Sunday, about 10,000 South Korean farmers, workers and supporters rallied and marched in downtown Seoul, asking their government to stop the FTA talks. There were no reports of arrests or injuries.

Opponents said they will continue protests throughout this week's Seoul talks.
Seoul, March 26 (Yonhap News)

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