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S. Korean trade minister defends U.S. deal
SEOUL (AP) — South Korea’s top trade official on Sunday defended a hard-fought compromise with the United States to salvage a stalled free-trade agreement, rejecting accusations that his government gave up too much to seal the deal.
Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk reached a final agreement Friday after four days of negotiations focusing on U.S. demands that South Korea rework the accord to address its big trade surplus in automobiles.
The South Korea-U.S. free-trade agreement originally was signed in June 2007, but steps to ratify it stalled amid changes in government in both countries, the global financial crisis and American demands that South Korea take steps to reduce its imbalance in auto trade and ease restrictions on imports of American beef.
South Korea, which long said it would not budge on the initial deal, ultimately compromised and addressed key U.S. concerns on cars, though it also received benefits in return, such as a two-year delay in the elimination of its tariffs on American pork. Beef was not included in the deal.
“I cannot agree with some views that (the agreement was the result) of our unilateral concession,” Mr. Kim, the trade minister, told reporters Sunday, calling it a “win-win” deal.
The pact, which requires approval by the U.S. Congress and South Korea's National Assembly, is the largest for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1994.
Among key provisions of the revised deal, Seoul would allow the United States to lift a 2.5 percent tariff on South Korean passenger cars four years after the agreement takes effect, instead of immediately. South Korea, meanwhile, would halve its tariff on U.S. cars to 4 percent from 8 percent and eliminate it after four years. Also, each U.S. automaker would be able to export up to 25,000 cars to South Korea as long as they meet U.S. safety standards. Disputes over safety standards had stood as a barrier to U.S. auto exports to South Korea.
The Korea Automobile Manufacturers Association welcomed the agreement, saying that it eliminated uncertainties in the U.S. market and that South Korean automakers were forecast to increase their market share, Yonhap news agency reported.
The new agreement, however, does not address South Korean restrictions on American beef. The United States has sought greater access to the market in South Korea, which imposes controls on shipments of U.S. meat from older animals over fears of mad cow disease.
The renewed push to move the deal forward came after talks last month in Seoul between President Obama and his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, failed to achieve a breakthrough.
Last week’s negotiations also took place after a deadly North Korean artillery barrage on a small South Korean island, though Mr. Kim said that the attack did not affect the talks and that he engaged in them completely from an economic point of view.
Since negotiations for the ambitious deal began in 2006, both countries have touted it as good for their economies but also as a way to solidify their six-decade political and security relationship.
Mr. Kim emphasized that again Sunday, saying if the agreement is ratified smoothly, it will “lay a good foundation for strengthening overall relations between the two countries.”
“This agreement shows the U.S. is willing to lead and compete in the global economy,” he told reporters Saturday at the White House, calling it a triumph for American workers.
The breakthrough can be seen as an achievement for Mr. Obama, who has drawn criticism over the slow U.S. economic recovery and stubbornly high unemployment rate. He long criticized the original deal as being bad for the United States.
Mr. Lee, meanwhile, has drawn flak at home for an allegedly weak and indecisive response to the North Korean artillery attack. His government has come under further scrutiny over the trade deal, with opposition parties seeing it as a capitulation to Washington.
Lee Chun-seok, spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Party, accused the government of making “massive concessions against our national interests,” his party said. “We cannot find the principle of reciprocity anywhere in the agreement.”
Kang Ki-kab, a legislator with the small Democratic Labor Party, said the deal highlights South Korea’s “diplomacy of submission to America.”
Protesters, including Mr. Kang and other opposition lawmakers, shouted slogans and held up signs Sunday in central Seoul criticizing the president and his policies. Police said the crowd numbered about 2,200 and the protest was peaceful.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Erica Werner, Julie Pace and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.
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