- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

SEOUL (AP) — South Korea and the United States vowed a major push this week in free-trade talks that have yielded little progress and face a fast-approaching deadline.

The two sides started their sixth round of negotiations yesterday after five efforts since June left them far apart on issues ranging from anti-dumping provisions to trade in automobiles and pharmaceuticals.

“In this round of negotiations, both parties will exercise flexibility and, as a result, I believe that we’ll be able to resolve many of the remaining issues,” Ambassador Kim Jong-hoon, South Korea’s chief negotiator, told reporters.

Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler, Mr. Kim’s counterpart, also expressed optimism.

“Our challenges are real, but they are not insurmountable,” she said. “My team and I are prepared to take big steps this week to narrow our differences on as many issues as possible, including on the tough issues.”

A successful deal would slash tariffs and other barriers on a wide range of goods and services from the two nations, which already do $72 billion worth of business a year.

South Korea, the world’s 10th-largest economy, is the United States’ seventh-biggest trading partner.

Though the stakes are high — if successful, the deal would be the biggest for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, in 1993 — time is running short.

President Bush, under special “fast-track” trade promotion authority, can submit deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendments until the end of June, when the authority expires.

But a deal must be completed 90 days in advance so lawmakers in Washington will have time to review it before voting. South Korea’s legislature also must approve the pact.

The latest round in the United States last month failed to bridge numerous gaps, including Seoul’s request for Washington to soften U.S. rules governing the placing of penalty tariffs on products sold at unfairly low prices — a practice known as dumping.

Mrs. Cutler said yesterday that she and Mr. Kim would be taking up the most contentious issues — trade remedies, automobiles and pharmaceuticals — to try to energize the talks.

Mr. Kim said he met Mrs. Cutler twice yesterday, but he suggested there were no immediate breakthroughs.

“Just based on today’s meetings, it’s difficult for me to say there has been specific progress,” he said. He also acknowledged that Seoul was unlikely to compromise on the trade-remedy issue.

Outside the swank hilltop hotel, thousands of riot police stood guard against protests that have dogged the previous two rounds in South Korea.

The talks have drawn sometimes fierce resistance from farmers, laborers and even filmmakers who say free trade threatens their livelihoods.

Demonstrations yesterday were small, though larger ones were expected in coming days. Authorities, vowing “zero tolerance” for violent protests, have deployed 15,000 riot police in the capital.

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