S. Korea, U.S. decide to give trade deal more time

16:35, November 11, 2010      

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Visiting U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul, capital of South Korea, on Nov. 11, 2010. (Xinhua Photo)

Following unfruitful last-ditch efforts by Seoul and Washington to settle differences on their free trade agreement, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama said Thursday they have decided to give the deal more time.

"We agreed that it is necessary to have more time to resolve detailed issues and asked our trade ministers to reach a mutually acceptable deal as soon as possible," Lee told reporters in a joint press conference with Obama, who arrived in Seoul late Wednesday for the G20 economic summit.

The two sides will have to continue talks over renegotiating the deal after the G20 summit, but "it won't take long," Lee said.

Expectations ran high prior to the summit talks between Lee and Obama that the two might make a major announcement on the two-way free trade pact still awaiting legislative approval, as the leaders had agreed to seek a compromise before they sit with each other on the sidelines of the G20.

A series of talks by top trade officials over the deal, however, failed to produce a breakthrough in an impasse over auto trade imbalances and U.S. beef imports -- two thorny issues that bogged down all previous attempts to ratify the deal, struck in 2007.

U.S. congressmen have been reportedly calling for renegotiation of the trade agreement, echoing U.S. industry concerns over South Korea's apparently strict regulations that might impede American car sales here.

South Korea is planning to require automakers to have a fuel efficiency of 16.7 kilometers per liter and bring down greenhouse gas emissions to 140 grams per kilometer, starting 2015. U.S. automakers have said the standards amount to non-tariff barriers.

U.S. beef imports are another key bone of contention that can risk Lee's popularity if South Korea gives in to the U.S. request to further open up its market and allow U.S. beef produced from cattle older than 30 months old into the country -- something Seoul has stayed away from for fear of mad cow disease.

With lessons learned from months of massive street protests in 2008 against resuming American beef imports, South Korean trade officials reportedly made it clear during four-day marathon meetings that they would not budge on the beef issue, which they say is unrelated to the trade accord.

Still, Lee and Obama called the trade pact, said to be the largest trade pact for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a "win-win" deal.

Obama said the deal would boost U.S. imports to South Korea by 10 billion U.S. dollars and create some 70,000 new jobs for Americans while South Koreans would have better access to the U.S. market and enjoy a wider variety of choices.

Trade representatives from both sides will meet again in Washington after the G20 summit to continue discussions, he said.

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