Wednesday September 21, 2005
US Presses S. Korea On Issues Blocking FTA Negotiations
WASHINGTON, Sept 21 Asia Pulse - The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), raising doubts about South Korea’s commitment to a bilateral free trade agreement, pressed the Asian trading partner Tuesday to be "unambiguous" in supporting it.
The office urged South Korea, as well as the U.S. Congress, to decide by end of the year whether they indeed want a bilateral accord.
Neena Moorjani, USTR press secretary, said chief U.S. Trade Representative Robert Portman and visiting South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong discussed "what it would take" to move forward on the launch of the FTA.
"Ambassador Portman explained to Minister Kim today that it is critical to have strong, broad, unambiguous support for a major undertaking like this and that if we are going to be serious about seizing this opportunity, we will first need more progress in resolving key outstanding trade issues," Moorjani said.
The U.S., South Korea’s second-largest trading partner, has often demanded Seoul be more forthcoming on key issues of contention, chiefly beef imports and screen quotas.
South Korea has banned U.S. beef imports since December 2003 after reports of mad-cow disease in U.S. cattle.
Another infected cow was discovered in August.
"Minister Kim explained to Portman that his country needs more time to study whether U.S. beef is safe following the August finding," an official at the South Korean Embassy said.
Another key issue is the screen quota enforced by South Korea, under which movie theaters must show domestic-made films for a certain number of days a year.
Formal FTA talks between the two countries have not yet started, but there have been several rounds of discussions to assess feasibility.
Officials in Seoul had mentioned the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, opening in South Korea in November, as the appropriate time for Seoul and Washington to officially announce the start of FTA negotiations.
The U.S. side is also in a hurry, hoping to wrap up the agreement before the Fast Track Authority expires in June 2007.
A major psychological hurdle to such an endeavor was removed in July when Congress passed, by a narrow margin, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
The delay and difficulty in getting CAFTA past the Congress, according to some economic analysts, were signs that US lawmakers are not ready to tackle another FTA.
"Ambassador Portman made it clear in his meetings with Congress that there should be a decision by the end of the year on whether we proceed with a launch or not for Korea and others," Moorjani said.
Administrative officials, including Portman, have been pressing South Korea to move forward more quickly on pending issues so that they can persuade the Congress.
Portman, during his visit to South Korea in June, told officials there that Seoul should try to reach directly to the "stakeholders" in the U.S., such as industry leaders and lawmakers.