- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 14, 2007

INCHON, South Korea (AP) — The chief U.S. negotiator in free-trade talks with South Korea said the two sides need to make progress this week toward achieving an agreement.

Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler told reporters upon arrival yesterday that the key objective of the sixth round of negotiations — set to begin today in Seoul — is “to get an agreement, a good agreement.”

She said she was “looking forward to a productive week.”

Since talks began in June, Seoul and Washington have reported little progress toward a deal that, if completed, would be the United States’ biggest since the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993.

The latest round in the United States last month failed to bridge numerous gaps, including Seoul’s request for Washington to change its anti-dumping laws and patent protections for American pharmaceutical companies.

Other thorny issues include autos and agriculture.

Mrs. Cutler and her South Korean counterpart will be in overtime, having missed their initial, albeit informal, goal of wrapping up a basic deal by the end of last year.

President Bush’s ability to “fast-track” an agreement through Congress — meaning he can submit it for a straight yes-or-no vote without amendments — expires July 1.

But any agreement would have to go to Washington at least 90 days before that, because lawmakers would need to review it before a vote. The deal also requires South Korean lawmakers’ approval.

An agreement would slash tariffs and other barriers on a wide range of goods and services from the two nations, which do $72 billion worth of business a year.

South Korea, the world’s 10th-largest economy, is already the United States’ seventh-largest trading partner.

The proposed agreement has drawn fierce resistance from South Korean labor, agriculture and social groups, as well as its film industry.

Farmers have been among the most vocal, protesting against any reduction in protections for agriculture, particularly rice.

The government late last year vowed “zero tolerance” for violent protests, threatening to take all measures available — including criminal punishment and claims for compensation.

The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said last week that it would mobilize about 15,100 riot police to protect negotiators, ensure security at the negotiating venue and other major facilities, and guard against rallies and demonstrations.

The July round of talks, also held in Seoul, triggered large street demonstrations.

Yesterday, about a dozen protesters gathered at the airport terminal in Inchon, west of Seoul, to denounce the proposed deal as several hundred riot police stood by.

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