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US, South Korea Extend Talks in Last Minute Push For Trade Deal


The push for a trade liberalization deal between the United States and South Korea is going down to the wire. Negotiators extended their deadline to hammer out sensitive issues to produce a deal before a crucial legislative deadline. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

Despite nearly round-the-clock talks, U.S. and South Korean negotiators gave themselves two more days to reach a deal, going well past their original deadline of midnight on Friday.

Kim Yong-hoon, who heads Seoul's negotiating team, says the deadline for producing a deal has been moved to 1600 UTC Sunday.

U.S. and South Korean delegations have negotiated for nearly a year on a free trade agreement. Economists say it could add tens of billions of dollars to an already robust trade relationship by dropping trade barriers and tariffs.

The intensity of the talks has increased in the last several months, with teams racing to overcome a handful of highly sensitive issues that generate strong political reactions in the two countries.

Thousands of people who oppose the deal attended a candlelight vigil here in Seoul Friday night, capping off months of sometimes-violent protests.

The most emotional issue for most South Koreans is rice. South Korean rice farmers have extensive government protections and rice in the country sells for several times international prices. The government has promised to protect rice from a rapid market opening.

Seoul wants the U.S. to change certain import tariffs that business leaders here say unfairly target South Korean exporters.

The United States seeks more access to the South Korean automobile market, which U.S. authorities accuse Seoul of unfairly protecting with arbitrary regulations. The United States exported about 5,000 automobiles to South Korea in 2005, while U.S. consumers bought more than 700,000 South Korean cars.

Washington also wants easier entry into the South Korean pharmaceutical and financial services markets.

Although it is not a formal part of the negotiations, U.S. officials say passage of an agreement is contingent on South Korea fully opening its market to U.S. beef. Seoul restricted U.S. beef imports more than three years ago after a case of mad cow disease was found in the United States.

Officials say this is the last possible extension for negotiations. The Bush administration must notify Congress on Sunday that it intends to submit a deal for a vote.

If the administration misses that deadline, it means Congress will be able to seek amendments to any proposed deal, greatly reducing chances of passage.

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