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US Negotiator Hints South Korea Trade Deal May Be Delayed


The latest round of talks aimed at liberalizing trade between the United States and South Korea has gotten off to a difficult start. As disagreements persist over some of the proposals, the top U.S. negotiator says the bargaining may extend longer than expected.

Police kept thousands of protesters at bay as the fourth round of discussions aimed at a U.S. - South Korea Free Trade Agreement got under way on South Korea's Jeju Island.

The deal would make it easier for both countries to sell goods and services in each other's markets. But there is deep-seated opposition to an agreement in South Korea, where many fear it would allow the massive U.S. economy to overwhelm entire South Korean industries.

South Korean officials quoted in local media described the talks as "difficult" and "somber." Senior U.S. negotiator Wendy Cutler says the two sides still aim to draft a deal by the end of this year, as agreed - but added the talks may extend into next year.

One of the main sticking points blocking an agreement deals with agriculture. The United States wants to sell more of its farm products, including rice, to South Koreans. But Seoul wants to protect South Korean farming, which is widely seen as a central component of the nation's culture.

Washington also wants South Korea to give its consumers easier access to U.S. automobiles, pharmaceuticals, and financial services.

South Korea says Washington needs to do away with measures protecting U.S. textile and electronics producers.

Paik Jin-hyun, an international relations expert at Seoul National University, says more time for free trade talks may be positive, from a South Korean perspective.

"Many South Koreans think that this process is really rushing, you know, to meet the United States' political timetable. I do not think it is such a bad thing to have a little more time," he said.

U.S. negotiators are eager to lock in a trade deal before President Bush loses so-called "fast track" negotiation authority in June of next year. It allows him to submit trade deals for a simple approve-or-reject vote by the U.S. Congress.

Without that authority, Congress can seek to change a proposed deal, which experts say would sharply reduce the likelihood of any deal achieving passage.

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