The United States Thursday called for progress in talks to address US concerns over lopsided auto trade and some other issues before ratification of a pending free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea.
“Whether it’s autos or whether it’s other issues, we know that we’ve got to make some progress,” Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, told reporters.
“I think both sides are going to sit down and see if they can make some of that progress. If we can make enough progress to where the president feels like, for instance on autos, there’s a better deal for our automakers and for our workers, then it’ll be something that we can support.”
The remarks came as working-level officials from South Korea and the US are struggling to narrow differences in Seoul before the G-20 economic summit.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and US President Barack Obama will meet next week on the sidelines of the G-20 summit to discuss the Korea FTA’s ratification, which has been pending for more than three years over an imbalance in auto trade and limited shipments of beef.
“The (US) president outlined the concerns that he had, both during the campaign in 2008 and just recently, with what he thinks has to be improved in an agreement that he can support and he can be a party to,” Gibbs said.
South Korean Deputy Minister for Trade Choi Seok-young met with Wendy Cutler, assistant US trade representative for Korea, Japan and APEC Affairs, in Seoul Thursday, and they were to meet again Friday.
US Trade Representative Ron Kirk is expected to meet with South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon early next week to conclude talks for the ratification of the FTA, signed in 2007 under the George Bush administration.
Kirk had a two-day meeting with Kim in San Francisco last week, the first of its kind since June, but neither official disclosed the outcome of the talks, apparently to avoid adversely affecting Democratic candidates in Tuesday’s election.
In Seoul, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said there is “room for negotiations” on auto issues, considering changes South Korea made in fuel mileage and other regulations.
But the minister said Seoul cannot fully open its market to US beef.
Currently, South Korea allows imports of US beef only from cattle younger than 30 months, which is considered to have lower risks of mad cow disease than beef from older cattle.
Kim also said the text of the 2007 deal won’t be changed in the ongoing FTA talks.
“The text of the FTA agreement reflects the interests of both South Korea and the US in a considerably balanced way,” Kim told KBS Radio. “There cannot be renegotiations that change the text.”
US President Obama spoke Monday with South Korean President Lee and reiterated his pledge to conclude talks for the FTA’s ratification before the G-20 economic summit to be held in Seoul next week.
“The president underscored that we hope to use the next week to make progress toward an agreement,” Gibbs said Tuesday. “If we can reach a satisfactory agreement on the key issues for American workers, we will have a deal.”
Obama ordered Kirk in June to conclude talks with Kim Jong-hoon on outstanding issues before mid-November so he can present the deal to Congress early next year.
Kirk said recently that he will sideline issues other than autos and beef to complete talks with South Korea by next week, despite calls by a number of US industries to revisit clauses on textiles, financial services, investment, labor and even refrigerators.
Experts, however, say he will likely put more focus on autos, as beef is a much more sensitive issue in South Korea.
Weeks of street rallies over consumer health concerns from beef imports nearly paralyzed President Lee’s administration in early 2008.