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US Negotiator 'Optimistic' About Free Trade Deal With South Korea

A top U.S. negotiator is still optimistic Washington and South Korea can work out a trade liberalization deal in the coming weeks, despite a series of daunting negotiating challenges. But as a politically crucial U.S. deadline approaches, Wendy Cutler warns there are still sticking points, ranging from U.S. automobiles to beef. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

Senior U.S. trade negotiator Wendy Cutler said Monday that the challenges to a free trade agreement with South Korea are "real, but not insurmountable."

She spoke in Seoul at the start of a sixth round of trade talks.

On Friday, South Korean officials said their negotiators would not discuss opening its automobile and drug markets - both key issues of concern to Washington. They say the United States has not addressed Seoul's concerns about U.S. import regulations.

Cutler says those issues will be dealt with in her talks with South Korean chief negotiator Kim Jong-hoon.

"While we would prefer that these groups meet, the United States is prepared to make progress on all three of these issues at the chief negotiator level," Cutler says.

South Korea wants the United States to adjust its anti-dumping laws, which are meant to protect U.S. producers from exporters who sell below cost to grab market share.

South Korean companies say they have been unfairly targeted by the laws.

U.S. trade negotiators respond that they do not have the flexibility to compromise on import laws, because only Congress can make changes.

Cutler says one key element of a successful South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, known as KORUS-FTA for short, will be changes to how Seoul handles U.S. beef imports.

"Although the discussion between the United States and Korea on reopening the beef market is separate from the KORUS-FTA negotiations, a resolution of this issue is also critical if the FTA is to become a reality," Cutler says.

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.

However, Seoul has turned back three shipments of U.S. beef in the past two months, saying the presence of tiny bone fragments presents a risk of the disease.

The move has irritated U.S. producers, who say all U.S. beef is safe, and accuse South Korea of searching for a pretext to block imports.

South Korean and U.S. negotiators agree time is running out to reach a potential deal before President Bush loses his authority in June to submit the deal to Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote. This week's talks are scheduled to continue until Friday, at which point negotiators are expected to decide whether to schedule a seventh round of talks.