- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 21, 2009

SEOUL (AP) | South Korea’s foreign minister Friday ruled out additional negotiations with the United States over a free-trade agreement, a day after the presidents of the two countries vowed cooperation to push the stalled deal forward.

The ambitious accord, signed more than two years ago, has languished in political limbo as U.S. officials insist it does not adequately address a wide gap in auto trade between the two countries that favors South Korea.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Thursday at a press conference with President Obama that his government was willing to discuss the auto issue with Washington.

“If we have an auto problem with the U.S., we should have an opportunity to talk again and understand each other,” Mr. Lee said. It was not clear whether that included a willingness to renegotiate.

But Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, speaking in parliament Friday, said Mr. Lee’s comments did not mean “renegotiation or additional negotiations.”

South Korean officials have consistently ruled out a formal reopening of the deal that was signed in June 2007, well before Mr. Lee and Mr. Obama were elected. The agreement requires ratification by legislatures in both countries to take effect.

Ron Kirk, the U.S. trade representative, earlier this month criticized South Korea’s auto market as not being fully open to U.S. manufacturers and said his office was conducting a review of the deal.

Mr. Obama said Thursday in Seoul that he was committed to the agreement and that officials from both countries were trying to resolve problems.

Two-way trade between South Korea and the U.S. amounted to $84.8 billion in 2008, making Washington South Korea’s fourth-biggest trading partner after China, the European Union and Japan.

Figures compiled by auto industry groups in South Korea show the country exported nearly 600,000 vehicles to the U.S. last year, while South Koreans purchased nearly 7,000 vehicles made by American manufacturers.

South Korea has been aggressively pursuing free-trade agreements as part of a strategy to boost its economy and increase export opportunities.

In effect are agreements with Chile, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the European Free Trade Association, which includes Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

In addition to the deal with the U.S., South Korea has concluded negotiations with the European Union. And Seoul is negotiating free-trade deals with 11 countries, including Canada, Mexico, Peru, Australia and New Zealand.

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