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US Lawmakers Say Trade Deal With South Korea Should Pass

A team of U.S. lawmakers visiting South Korea says a major free-trade deal signed several months ago may have to wait until next year for passage. Other pressing business before the U.S. Congress, and some unsettled issues in the agreement, are behind the prospective delay. VOA's Kurt Achin has more from Seoul.

U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson says ratifying a major trade deal with South Korea this year is not Washington's highest priority.

"The chances of taking up the proposed trade policy might be a little slim," she said.

Watson is chairing the U.S. side of an inter-parliamentary conference between the two countries this week. Lawmakers from both countries call it an opportunity for frank dialogue about the deal, which would loosen trade barriers.

But Watson cited U.S. domestic budget items, along with security concerns connected to Iraq and Iran, as the reason for the likely delay.

President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun signed the deal in June after months of intense negotiation. The deal is bitterly opposed by some Korean groups, who fear it would allow the far larger U.S. economy to swallow entire sectors of South Korean production.

Two of the three biggest U.S. automobile producers oppose the deal, because they say it does not sufficiently cut barriers to import foreign cars into South Korea.

Watson says the agreement will not become law until Congress can assure U.S. carmakers they are not getting a bad deal.

"Cars, car sales, jobs, manufacturing, will be a number-one issue," added Watson.

There is also uneasiness in Washington about including goods made in Kaesong, a North-South Korean joint venture located in the North, in the free-trade deal. Seoul wants them included, but some congressmen are concerned that the North Korean workers at the park are not being treated according to global labor standards.

South Korea's ban on U.S. beef imports is another sensitive issue.

South Korea suspended those imports after a U.S. cow was found with "mad cow" disease in 2003, but resumed shipments this year. Little U.S. beef has actually made it to consumers, however, due to rejection of shipments containing bits of bone, which South Korean inspectors call a health hazard.

Congressman Earl Pomeroy, who represents many American farmers, says the beef issue could be a deal breaker for the free trade agreement.

"The embargo is an issue that needs to be resolved, I believe, before there will be much prospect for having the free-trade agreement passed in Congress," said Pomeroy.

Washington says U.S. beef, with or without bones, is completely safe. The World Organization for Animal Health says U.S. producers have adequately controlled the threat of mad cow disease.