- Associated Press - Saturday, December 4, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama on Saturday praised a newly sealed trade deal with South Korea as a landmark agreement that promises to boost the domestic auto industry and support tens of thousands of American jobs.

“This agreement shows the U.S. is willing to lead and compete in the global economy,” the president told reporters at the White House, calling it a triumph for American workers in fields from farming to aerospace.

The pact, which requires congressional approval, would be the largest since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1994. Obama said the South Korean deal would support at least 70,000 American jobs — welcome news with the latest unemployment figures showing nearly stagnant job growth. The president said that jobs report showed more needed to be done.

“Essential to that is opening new markets around the world to products that are made in America,” Obama said. “Because we don’t simply want to be an economy that consumes other countries’ goods.”

He said U.S. automakers would gain greater access to the expanding South Korean market. “It will continue to ensure a level playing field for American automakers here at home,” he added.

Exports of U.S. goods to South Korea could soar to $10 billion under the deal, which won rare praise for Obama from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as some Republicans. The pact originally was negotiated under George W. Bush’s administration but had stalled.

Obama had hoped to announce the deal while in Seoul for economic meetings last month, but it didn’t come together, an embarrassment at the time for Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Obama said Saturday that the version under consideration in Seoul “wasn’t good enough.”

It’s the first big trade deal of Obama’s presidency, but Obama said: “I’m not interested in signing trade agreements for the sake of signing trade agreements.” He said improvements had been made since the talks in Seoul.

Representatives from both countries broke through a stalemate Friday morning on issues related to the automobile industry.

South Korea would allow the U.S. to lift a 2.5 percent tariff on Korean cars in five years, instead of cutting the tariff right away. Each U.S. automaker could export 25,000 cars to South Korea as long as they met U.S. safety standards; disputes over safety standards had effectively stood as a barrier to U.S. auto exports into Korea. A U.S. tariff on Korean trucks would be phased out and South Korea would eliminate its tariff on U.S. trucks immediately.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak praised the deal as bringing huge economic benefits to both countries and further boosting the two nations’ alliance.

“The accord is significant because it lays the groundwork for a ‘win-win’ relationship by reflecting the national interests of Korea and the United States in a balanced manner,” Lee said in a statement posted on the presidential website.

For Lee, the agreement comes amid harsh criticism at home that his response to a deadly artillery attack last month by North Korea on a South Korean island has been weak and indecisive. Obama mentioned the attack and said the trade deal showed that “the defense alliance between the United States and South Korea is stronger than ever.”

Lee’s government, which once had said it would not renegotiate the trade deal, could face harsh criticism at home if the compromises on autos are seen as a capitulation.

The agreement does not address issues with U.S. beef exports. The U.S. has sought greater access to the beef market in South Korea, which restricts imports of older U.S. meat. Obama said issues related to beef would continue to be worked on.

The overall agreement would eliminate tariffs on more than 95 percent of industrial and consumer goods within five years. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimated that would increase exports of U.S. goods by at least $10 billion. The deal would also open up South Korea’s vast $560 billion services markets to U.S. companies.

Associated Press writers Erica Werner in Washington and Kelly Olsen and Kim Kwang-Tae in Seoul contributed to this report.