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South Korea Rules Out Key Discussions in US Free Trade Talks

With only days to go before the start of crucial free trade discussions with the United States, South Korea says it will not talk about several issues of key concern to Washington. Seoul says U.S. negotiators have not made satisfactory progress on addressing South Korean concerns. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, the move may make already shaky prospects for a trade liberalization deal even more challenging.

South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Friday that it will not discuss automobiles and pharmaceuticals - issues Washington says are of serious concern as the two sides seek a trade liberalization deal.

The statement says "informal discussions" on the issues will continue. U.S. negotiators are to arrive in Seoul on Sunday.

South Korea says the United States has offered no steps to deal with its concerns about U.S. anti-dumping laws. Those measures are used to protect U.S. producers from exporters selling products at below cost to grab market share. Seoul says South Korean companies have been unfairly targeted by the rules.

U.S. officials were not available Friday to respond formally to the South Korean statement. Privately, however, some said the current situation is likely to make for a "rough start" to the sixth and, most likely, final round of talks, which begin Monday.

The fifth round of talks, held in December in the United States, was suspended over the same three areas: anti-dumping, automobiles and pharmaceuticals.

Economics professor Chong In-kyo manages the free trade research center at Inha University in Incheon. He says even though the negotiations are facing difficulty, a successful deal should not yet be ruled out.

He says excluding key discussions is a tactic by the South Korean government to increase pressure on Washington to negotiate. He predicts the two sides will make progress on other free trade issues, then address the more sensitive topics by exchanging give-and-take proposals later on.

Talks on a free-trade agreement started in June of 2005. An agreement would make it easier for the two countries to buy each other's products.

Negotiators hope to reach a deal by June, when President Bush loses the authority to submit a deal to Congress for a simple yes or no vote. After that point, Congress will be able to seek amendments to any trade agreement, greatly complicating the chances of passage.