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(News Focus) President, opposition leader meet, with little progress

All Headlines 16:46 June 27, 2011

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, June 27 (Yonhap) -- President Lee Myung-bak and the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party made little remarkable progress Monday in their high-profile talks on the free trade agreement with the U.S. and other outstanding issues, but both sides portrayed the talks positively.

The presidential office said that the talks were a good first step toward increased dialogue between the two sides, while the opposition party said the meeting was meaningful in that its leader, Sohn Hak-kyu, made the case directly to Lee for policies addressing ordinary people's economic difficulties.

"We attach significant meaning to the fact that we broke away from deep-rooted confrontation and have begun a political dialogue through today's talks," presidential spokesman Park Jeong-ha said. "We plan to hold dialogue with anybody, anywhere and at any time with an open-minded attitude."

DP spokesman Lee Yong-sup said that Monday's talks produced a "fairly big outcome" in that Sohn delivered to Lee a direct message from the people on how the government can improve their livelihoods. "We hope this will serve as a chance for a policy switchover in the government," he said.

Analysts also said the meeting itself was meaningful.

"It's meaningful that President Lee and the opposition leader met for a talk, but they have not narrowed their differences on most key issues, such as the college tuition cut and Korea-U.S. FTA," Yoo Chang-sun, a Seoul-based political analyst, said.

Six agenda items were on the table in the talks -- ways to curb household debts, a corruption scandal involving savings banks, job creation, ways to lower college tuitions, whether to draw up a supplementary budget and the U.S. FTA.

Lee and Sohn produced agreements on relatively easy issues. They agreed that the government will draw up a package of measures to curb household debts, work closely together to thoroughly uncover what caused the savings bank scandal and how to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

They also agreed to cooperate closely to create more jobs, according to a joint statement.

But on contentious issues, such as the trade accord with the U.S., they made little progress.

Officials from both sides said the FTA was the "most contentious issue."

During the talks, Lee asked Sohn for "active cooperation" on the FTA issue "for the sake of the country's future," according to the joint statement. But Sohn claimed the agreement had "lost balance greatly" and said it must be renegotiated, the statement said.

The DP has long desired the revision of the trade pact. Still, Monday's reiteration of the party's stance bodes badly for the government's push to get the deal through parliament. Signed in 2007 and supplemented last December, the agreement has been awaiting approval from the legislatures of the two countries.

On the issue of college tuitions, the two sides agreed in principle that tuitions were too high and must be cut. But they differed on specifics, such as when and how tuitions should be slashed, officials said.

"President Lee reaffirmed his policy to restructure colleges first and then lower tuition fees, and Sohn agreed with his principles," DP spokesman Lee told reporters, adding further discussions are needed for specific measures.

Sohn's agreement on the need for college restructuring is expected to provide the government with an impetus to push for funding cuts to uncompetitive colleges in the regular assembly set to open in September.

The GNP evaluated the summit positively, saying it produced "broad consent" over such issues as household debt and employment.

"The GNP welcomes the meeting, which produced visible outcomes," GNP spokeswoman Bae Eun-hui said at a briefing. "We will cooperate with the opposition party in the June assembly over people's livelihoods" as well as parliamentary inspection into a massive corruption scandal involving Busan Savings Bank.

The minor opposition Liberty Forward Party (LFP), however, described the summit as "ending in vain."

"President Lee and DP leader Sohn said they will put forth their utmost efforts, but no agreement was made over how to implement specific plans over key issues, such as college tuition cuts," LFP spokesman Lee Young-ho said.

The question now is whether their agreement can yield success in the policy arena.

Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan said the government will put its policy priority on reviving the local economy by stabilizing prices and boosting the job market.

"In the latter half of this year, the ministry will put its focus on stabilizing ordinary people's livelihoods, improving economic fundamentals and strengthening the driving force for the future economy," Bahk said at a policy coordination meeting with GNP officials.

"Above all, the government will put effort into stabilizing commodity prices and creating jobs."


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