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’Time not ripe for Korea, US to start FTA talks’

Korea Herald

’Time not ripe for Korea, U.S. to start FTA talks’

By Yoo Soh-jung

9 January 2006

As Washington pushes Seoul to begin talks for forging a free trade agreement, the Korean government says both countries have not yet agreed on when or even whether negotiations will begin.

"It has been revealed time and time again that the government has been aggressively pursuing an FTA with the United States with the belief that it would help strengthen our economy and the Korea-U.S. alliance," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement issued on Saturday. "But no agreement has been made on a specific time frame for launching formal talks, let alone on whether negotiations will even take place."

The Trade Ministry’s formal statement comes in response to a report on Jan. 6 by local daily, The Chosun Ilbo, claiming that Seoul and Washington agreed to enter talks for inking an FTA in April.

"Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman during a meeting on Jan. 3 agreed on commencing FTA negotiations," the Chosun Ilbo said, citing an unidentified government official. "Talks should begin three months after Seoul and Washington work out a plan, with next March the target for concluding an FTA."

The report comes as both governments seek to settle a trade dispute over U.S. beef. Korea banned American beef in December 2003 because a case of mad cow disease was confirmed in the U.S. state of Washington. Seoul has turned down U.S. requests to lift the ban because of concerns over safety for consumption.

Resuming beef imports and easing the screen quota for U.S. films are two preconditions proposed by Washington for entering FTA talks.

"Talks on conditions for U.S. beef imports are beginning (today), so the details still need to be worked out, while the government has not yet made any decisions on handling the screen quota issue," the statement highlighted to rebuff claims made by the Chosun Ilbo.

According to the daily, the Korean government is in the middle of "looking into" reducing the screen quota. The U.S. is asking for a cut in half of the current quota of 146 days to 73 days.

"Both Korea and the United States believe that a free trade agreement would benefit both countries, but what the Korean government needs right now is getting public support and finding public consensus, which is what our government needs to be focused on now," the ministry statement said.

Cheong In-kyo, an economics professor at Inha University, highlighted in a study that the United States should feel pressured to establish an FTA with Korea to secure its interests in East Asia and to avoid exclusion from East Asian regional economic integration.

East Asian countries have been seeing a decline in trade with the world’s largest economy, while East Asian regionalism is enforcing closer economic relations among the countries in the region, according to the study.

It noted that it would be in Korea’s best interest to ink an FTA since the United States, the world’s superpower, is the most important trading partner for most of the East Asian countries.

"Not only would a Korea-U.S. FTA allow both countries to benefit from preferentially favorable measures, it would likely reduce the amount of trade disputes involving Korea," the study said. "The U.S. is Korea’s most important trade partner and its greatest source of trade friction."