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Agreement scarce, dispute persists in SK-US free trade talks

Hankyoreh, Seoul, Jul.13, 2006

Agreement scarce, dispute persists in S.K.-U.S. free trade talks

Two countries agree to form a committee to discuss sanitary measures

South Korea and the U.S. have agreed to establish a standing committee to set sanitary standards for agricultural and food products, representing a compromise on one of the more contentious points in the negotiations on a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the two nations. Seoul had maintained that it would be enough to set up a "non-standing" committee, while the U.S. had demanded a standing one that could deal with the quarantine issue consistently throughout the talks.

Specifically, the standing committee would look at sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS), covering both food products and plant matter that would fall under the terms of an FTA.

"We have reached an agreement, and currently both sides are having committee chair-level talks" to solidify the terms, a South Korean official close to the matter said.

Some saw the compromise as a blow to South Korean interests. Through the standing committee, some experts said, the U.S. may find it easier to ask for expanded trade of food and meat products, including genetically modified crops.

The agreement came on the third day of the second round of FTA talks being held in Seoul, following the first round held last month in Washington. In the first half of the five-day second round, each side has so far completed negotiations in five subcategories out of a total of 17 to be discussed.

Unlike the compromise reached on establishing the quarantine committee, negotiations on pharmaceuticals and medical equipment have hit a snag, with neither side willing to budge.

The talks on these areas, launched on Tuesday, "came to a halt," a high-ranking South Korean official close to the negotiation said, "as the U.S. did not accept our measures related to the health insurance and pharmaceutical markets."

During the past three days, sources say that each side exchanged lists of products that they would not allow to be placed on the open market. While the U.S. asked for the lifting of time restrictions on airing of U.S. TV programs for local viewers, and demanded the opening of legal services and package delivery, South Korean negotiators put those items on their refusal list, the sources said.

Seoul and Washington hope to wrap up the negotiation by early next year, before U.S. President George W. Bush’s Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill expires in mid-2007. The bill allows for a trade deal to be struck without being subject to amendments by U.S. Congress.

Wendy Culter, the top U.S. trade envoy to the talks, said it would be "impossible" to extend the negotiation timeframe.

 source: Hankyoreh