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Fresh look at US-S.Korea FTA

StraitsTimes, Malaysia

Fresh look at US-S.Korea FTA

15 September 2009

WASHINGTON - The United States said on Monday it was taking a fresh look at whether South Korea is giving US automakers enough access under a draft free trade agreement, which has been stalled by disputes.

The deal, signed in 2007 but awaiting ratification by both nations’ legislatures, would phase out South Korea’s eight percent tariff on US auto imports.

’Now because of the turmoil in the auto industry in the US, this is an area where we think we have to look at it again,’ Kathleen Stephens, the US ambassador to South Korea, said on a visit to Washington.

’Given the difficulty that American autos have had getting into the Korean market historically, we may have to go back and look if there’s something more we can do,’ she said at the Korea Economic Institute.

Ms Stephens said that President Barack Obama’s administration was undertaking a ’careful review’ of the trade deal and had not yet decided whether to press for more concessions on cars.

Detroit’s Big Three car manufacturers, two of which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, have a minuscule presence in South Korea, whose own automakers have gained a growing slice of the US market.

Mr Obama opposed the free trade deal when he was a senator, with his campaign saying that South Korea still had non-tariff barriers that were unfair to US automakers.

Mr Obama told South Korean President Lee Myung Bak in June that he was ’committed’ to the deal, although he declined to set a time-frame.

Ms Stephens acknowledged that competitors were stealing a march. South Korea is set soon to ratify a free trade agreement with the European Union and last month signed a rare trade deal with India.

’On the one hand, Korean businesses understand why we’re taking some time with this, but at the same time the Korean government is not standing still,’ Ms Stephens said.

South Korea has ruled out negotiating the deal, which has also stirred intense controversy in Asia’s fourth largest economy due in part to fears over the safety of US beef.

South Korean leaders from both major parties have championed free trade agreements, hoping they will offer a competitive edge for a nation surrounded by economic giants China and Japan. — AFP