South Korean president sees boom from trade pact

He predicts surge in jobs, investments

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told a group of U.S. business leaders on Wednesday that the country’s free-trade agreement with the United States could send two-way trade soaring and spur an investment boom by 2015.

On the first full day of a Washington visit to be highlighted by a White House state dinner Thursday night, Mr. Lee spoke just hours before the House and Senate took final votes on the free-trade pact, which has been pending since 2007.

“If businessmen of the two countries make active efforts, trade between the two countries is expected to increase by more than 50 percent by 2015 and sharply expand investment,” Mr. Lee said at a luncheon at the Willard InterContinental hotel hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S.-Korea Business Council.

Mr. Lee said the trade agreement, first negotiated under President George W. Bush, will bring the two allies closer together and provide both with more jobs and more investment opportunities. He also said the pact signifies a strong “economic alliance” to complement the security ties that date back to the Korean War.

“Ratification of the Korea-U.S. [free-trade agreement] is a victory of businessmen of the two countries and a historic event that opens a new horizon in relations between the two countries,” Mr. Lee, a former Hyundai executive and mayor of Seoul, said.

The red carpet was rolled out as Mr. Lee arrived Tuesday in Washington for a state visit that includes summit talks with President Obama, the state dinner, an address to a joint session of Congress and stops in Detroit and Chicago.

The United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement was signed in June 2007, but its passage has been held up by political opposition on both sides. The Obama administration said it had won new concessions to help ease opposition from unions and other free-trade skeptics.

The deal calls for tearing down or reducing tariffs and other barriers to the exchange of goods and services. American automakers and farmers are expected to be major beneficiaries of the deal, getting increased access to lucrative markets that have been largely closed off to them in the past.

“We’re very hopeful that Congress will act to approve the trade agreement,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday. “And the president will, obviously, sign it if Congress does act.”

Tami Overby, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Asian division, said U.S. businesses greeting Mr. Lee were “sending good vibes over to Congress” for the passage of the agreement.

Mr. Lee “talked about the future that the free-trade agreement would create through the business community and challenged us to take full advantage of it,” Ms. Overby said.

The deal still must be ratified by the South Korean parliament, where it is also expected to face some opposition.

• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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