- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Top U.S. and South Korean negotiators acknowledged challenges today in concluding an ambitious free-trade agreement that opponents want to stop, but they expressed confidence they can hammer out an accord.

“I’m not contemplating any prospect of failure,” Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler told reporters after the two sides began their first session in South Korea following a week of negotiations last month in Washington.

Ms. Cutler and her counterpart, seasoned South Korean trade diplomat Kim Jong-hoon, opened the scheduled five days of talks at a Seoul hotel, where some 3,000 riot police deployed outside amid demonstrations against the accord, which aims to slash tariffs and other trade barriers between the two countries.

The effort faces strong resistance from South Korean labor groups, especially farmers who have protested against any reduction in protections for agriculture, particularly rice. The United States wants more access to South Korea’s agriculture, automobile and pharmaceuticals markets, among others.

Mr. Kim appeared more cautious, saying that as the negotiations continue, they naturally become harder.

“We’re in the second round now, so that means it’s more difficult,” Mr. Kim said. “It’s getting tougher and tougher. But we want to work constructively.”

The two sides aim to wrap up an agreement by the end of this year so they can submit it to their legislatures for debate and approval.

President Bush’s authority to “fast track” the trade deal — enabling U.S. envoys to negotiate an agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a yea-or-nay vote without amendments — runs out in mid-2007.

Police expect about 50,000 protesters to take to the streets this week, while groups opposed to the talks hoped for numbers to top 100,000. The National Police Agency was mobilizing some 20,000 officers.

The South Korean government on Friday vowed stern measures if violence breaks out at any anti-free-trade demonstrations, hinting that protesters breaking the law will face arrest.

Major protests are scheduled for Wednesday, including a partial strike by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the country’s two major labor organizations.

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