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US, South Korean Negotiators Work to Conclude Trade Deal

U.S. and South Korean negotiators are working around the clock in Washington and Seoul to clinch a major trade agreement that analysts say could add $20 billion to their already robust trade. The two sides are working to meet a congressional end-of-the-month deadline. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.

The chief U.S. representative to the Korean-U.S. Free Trade Agreement negotiations, Wendy Cutler, praised discussions in Seoul last week, saying the two sides reached agreements on customs, competition and government procurement.

She said other issues that are close to being resolved include financial services, market access, transparency, telecommunications, electronic commerce and standards.

She acknowledged that disagreement on some tough issues is holding up a final agreement, but expressed optimism they could be resolved soon.

"I would also say we've had detailed and informal discussions on really the most sensitive issues facing us in these negotiations, including the issues of priority to the United States, automotive, agriculture issues, pharmaceuticals," said Wendy Cutler. "We have no breakthroughs in these areas, but I would say the outline of the deal on these issues is definitely becoming clearer."

At the same time, South Korean embassy minister Seok Young Choi indicated that there are several outstanding issues that are important to his country.

"Still several areas which are very sticky and sensitive, such as agriculture and textiles, which is Korea's keen interest," said Seok Young Choi. "We are very keen to get market access to the American textile market."

South Korea also wants to exclude its rice market from any free trade deal.

Both sides expressed optimism that an agreement could be reached by the end of the month. Cutler is meeting in Washington with South Korean negotiator Kim Jong-hoon.

"Personally, I'm planning on a lot of hard work and I'm planning on very little sleep over the next two weeks," she said.

She refused to make any predictions, but said depending on progress this week, she hopes to be able to announce next steps within days.

At the same time, U.S. and South Korean negotiators in Seoul are discussing the key issue of opening South Korean markets to U.S. beef. South Korea banned American beef in December 2003, after mad cow disease was discovered in the United States. U.S. officials say American beef is safe and disease-free.

The Bush administration must notify Congress by the end of March of its intent to sign the pact, in order to submit it for legislative approval under a special trade negotiating authority that expires July 1.

The South Korean legislature must also approve the deal, which has been targeted by public street protests since the negotiations began last June.