- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

SEOUL (AP) — South Korea and the United States were taking a hard look at a possible free-trade agreement today, a spokesman for the U.S. negotiators said, hoping to clinch the elusive deal after almost 10 months of contentious talks.

“Basically, the deal’s on the table,” said Steve Norton, spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, three hours after a deadline to conclude negotiations had passed. “Both sides are huddling to see if they can accept it.”

Negotiators have met for eight straight days of talks at a Seoul hotel. If they succeed, the accord to slash tariffs and other trade barriers would be the biggest for Washington since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and the biggest for South Korea.

After an all-night session Friday, the two sides said they needed to extend talks beyond the original midnight deadline and agreed to finish the talks by 1 a.m. today in Seoul, corresponding to a noon deadline yesterday in Washington.

The negotiations were marred by ugly protests outside the luxury hilltop hotel where delegates met. A man set himself on fire and shouted, “Stop the Korea-U.S. FTA.” He was treated for third-degree burns, police said.

Nearby, about 150 protesters — including farmers, students and activists, some wearing red or white headbands — denounced the talks, chanting “Down with the Roh Moo-hyun government,” referring to South Korea’s president.

A brief clash between some of the protesters and riot police carrying shields and truncheons erupted later, with one policeman falling to the ground, bloodied. After dark, protesters gathered in front of Seoul City Hall for a candlelight protest, holding placards and chanting.

Police estimated the crowd at about 1,000 people. The protesters then marched through central Seoul toward the presidential Blue House, but they were checked by riot police.

South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia, as well as the chief negotiators for the two sides, have been meeting since last Monday to bridge contentious trade issues such as cars and agriculture.

The White House Friday said that after 10 months of haggling, the talks were “not going well.”

A trade-representative spokesman in Washington said Saturday that the U.S. had to wrap up the deal by yesterday in order to meet the deadline to notify Congress that President Bush does or does not intend to sign a deal under his expiring Trade Promotion Authority.

That “fast track” power to submit trade agreements to Congress for straight yes-or-no votes expires July 1, but legally, any trade agreement must be concluded 90 days in advance.

Mr. Norton said yesterday that there would be no further extension of talks.

Any final deal would be subject to approval by both Congress and South Korea’s National Assembly.

South Korea has refused to include its $9.1 billion rice market in a deal, saying the staple food is a “sensitive sector.”

“The U.S. side has paid great attention to our situation and position, and I believe their understanding has also been greatly raised,” Min Dong-seok, deputy minister for trade at the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry, told reporters.

Other bottlenecks include trade in cars, Seoul’s demand that goods made in a small North Korean industrial zone by South Korean companies be included, and the status of U.S. beef, which has been absent from South Korean markets for more than three years after mad-cow disease was discovered in the United States.

Officials on both sides say an agreement would boost economic ties between the longtime allies, which already conduct more than $75 billion in annual trade.

South Korean opponents — including labor, farm and anti-globalization activists — say an influx of U.S. products would cost jobs.

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