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President Lee hints at renegotiations on FTA auto trade clauses

The Hankyoreh, Korea

President Lee hints at renegotiations on FTA auto trade clauses

Lee’s remark on the KORUS FTA during the press conference following the summit with Obama leaves some confused

20 November 2009

While speaking on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), President Lee Myung-bak hinted Thursday that he would consider engaging in additional negotiations in the automobile sector if the U.S. requests it. President Lee’s statement is expected to cause controversy. In addition, U.S. President Barack Obama used the visit in South Korea as a setting for announcing the schedule for Stephen Bosworth’s, U.S. special representative for North Korea Policy, visit North Korea on Dec. 8 as a special envoy to engage in North Korea-U.S. dialogue.

At a press conference following his summit meeting with Obama, Lee said that if the U.S. has issues with the auto sector, South Korea is ready to talk again.

When asked by a U.S. reporter whether South Korea intends to renegotiate the FTA agreement on the auto sector, Lee responded by saying that South Korea has signed an FTA with the European Union (EU), another major car producer, and that if the U.S. and South Korea have an issue with the auto sector, they should be given a chance to reach a common understanding.

In response, Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon, who attended the summit, said there could be no renegotiations to the text of the FTA agreement, and that Lee’s comment should not be interpreted as anything more than a readiness to listen to what the U.S. side has to say. Another key Cheong Wa Dae (the presidential office in South Korea or Blue House) official, who wished to remain unnamed, however, said the statement meant that if the U.S. proposes a plan, South Korea could consider participating in additional negotiations.

Experts say that President Lee’s remark could mean that South Korea may yield on issues, such as the immediate abolishment of tariffs on autos, by creating an attachment to the agreement. On the other hand, Trade Minister Kim says South Korea has no plans to renegotiate concerning the agricultural sector, where it seems South Korea will take a major hit.

Regarding the North Korea nuclear issue, President Obama said at the press conference that he plans to send Bosworth to North Korea on Dec. 8 to begin bilateral talks with North Korea. Bosworth’s visit as a presidential envoy comes seven years after when then-Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly visited Pyongyang in October 2002 and met with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju.

Obama stressed, “Our message is clear. If North Korea is prepared to take concrete and irreversible steps to fulfill its obligations and eliminate its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. will support economic assistance and help promote its full integration into the community of nations.”

Lee said the two leaders fully agreed upon the need to present a package deal in the form of Lee’s proposed “Grand Bargain” to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue, and that they agreed to discuss closely the concrete content of such a bargain and how to promote it. Obama also stated that the two sides have agreed completely on a joint approach.