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US Official 'Upbeat' on Progress of Free Trade Talks with South Korea


The U.S. official charged with striking a trade liberalization deal with South Korea says she is "upbeat" about resolving some of the main obstacles that have arisen. But her Korean counterpart cautions that much work remains before a deal can be reached. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

A spokesman for senior U.S. Trade Negotiator Wendy Cutler says there has been some progress on the major obstacles blocking a free-trade deal between the United States and South Korea. In an interview with South Korea's Yonhap news agency Wednesday, Cutler said the same thing.

Nobody is saying exactly what the progress is, but the spokesman did say it looks like a seventh round of negotiations will be scheduled for some time in February. Prior to Cutler's arrival in Seoul for this week's sixth round, South Korean officials announced they would not participate in staff-level meetings, saying the two chief negotiators would have to find a way around the serious obstacles first.

Despite suggestions of progress, chief South Korean negotiator Kim Jong-yoon is downplaying speculation about any breakthrough.

He says the chief negotiator meetings were set up to overcome stumbling blocks on the issues, but says even if there is progress on those issues, there is still much more to accomplish before a successful free-trade agreement can be forged.

There are three main stumbling blocks to a free-trade agreement, or FTA, at this point. The U.S. wants Seoul to agree to open up its pharmaceutical and automobile markets to U.S. producers.

The South Koreans say they will not consider this until Washington addresses Seoul's concerns about anti-dumping laws. These laws are used to prevent overseas exporters from selling goods at less than the cost of production. The Koreans claim they are being unfairly targeted by anti-dumping claims.

An additional stumbling block - even though it is not formally part of the FTA process - is South Korea's handling of U.S. beef imports.

Seoul stopped imports of U.S. beef in 2003 after a cow with mad cow disease was found in the United States. Imports began again in November, under strict regulations, but Korean inspectors have turned back all shipments so far because of the presence of tiny bone fragments in the beef.

More than 30 U.S. Senators sent a letter to President Bush last year vowing to vote against any agreement unless beef is finally allowed to make its way back onto South Korean shelves.

Economics professor Lee Hae-young, of Hanshin University in Osan, says the lawmakers' threat limits the negotiators' flexibility on this matter.

He says the U.S. does not have the flexibility to make concessions on the beef issue, no matter how much progress is made on the other trade sectors.

The two countries are under strong deadline pressure. President Bush's authority to submit a deal to Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote expires in June. Any future deal would be subject to legislators' amendments, reducing the chances of passage.

Experts point out that many high stakes trade negotiations go down to the wire, as each side may offer last-minute concessions under deadline pressure. For that reason, they say a successful deal should not be ruled out.

The negotiators are expected to decide by Friday whether a seventh round of talks will be held.

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