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(LEAD) USTR places Korea FTA's ratification among priorities this year: Kirk

All Headlines 05:02 March 04, 2010

(ATTN: ADDS Kirk's remarks in paras 7-9)
By Hwang Doo-hyong

WASHINGTON, March 3 (Yonhap) -- Congressional approval of the pending free trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia should be a priority for the Obama administration as it seeks to double U.S. exports within five years, the chief U.S. trade official said Wednesday.

"As the president said last week, we are working to resolve the outstanding issues so that we can move forward on trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told a Senate Finance Committee hearing. "Approval of these FTAs is a priority."

"Taken together, these elements will stimulate export-driven growth and help the United States meet the president's goal to double U.S. exports in five years -- an increase that could support 2 million additional American jobs," he said.

Kirk's remarks came two days after the USTR presented the 2010 Trade Policy Agenda to Congress. Under the agenda, the Obama administration will submit the FTA with South Korea for ratification after resolving outstanding issues with automobiles and beef.

"With Korea, we are determined how best to address outstanding issues, particularly related to automobiles and beef," the USTR said in the report Monday. "If these outstanding issues can be successfully resolved, we will work with Congress on a timeframe to submit them for Congressional consideration."

The U.S. wants to address lopsided auto trade and restricted shipments of U.S. beef to South Korea in side agreements to avoid a complicated revision of the text of the deal signed in 2007.

Kirk told the senators it takes time to address those issues.

"The reason we've taken the time to engage you and members of labor unions and others is so that we can get to a place that we can pass a Korean free trade agreement, but the disparity in the number of automobiles imported into the United States, with over 700,000 Korean-made automobiles sold here, and less than 7,000 is not one that I think we can defend," he said. "But we know that and we're working to try to correct that."

South Korea says GM Daewoo, a South Korean affiliate of the American automaker General Motors, sold more than 110,000 units, or 11.7 percent of the Korean market in 2008, compared to Hyundai and Kia Motors' less than 7 percent market share in the U.S., which includes hundreds of thousands of autos produced by Hyundai Motor's plant in Alabama.

The foreign affairs and trade committee of South Korea's National Assembly passed the deal last year, and the ruling Grand National Party is awaiting action from Congress before approving the deal by the plenary session.

South Korea has urged ratification by this summer, fearing that any further delay may jeopardize its passage due to the politically sensitive mid-term elections in November.

The Obama administration does not want to shift its focus from health care, financial reform and other more pressing issues, while seeking the right "political timing" for the Korea FTA's ratification amid protectionist sentiment in Congress in the worst recession in decades.

Obama said last month he "would press for passage this year of free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia" to help create jobs through export growth, although he cautioned that "different glitches" must first be resolved with each country.

In his first State of the Union address in January, Obama also said, "If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores, and that's why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama, and Colombia."


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