South Korea, United States: Gaps remain in tough talks
A seventh round of talks is scheduled for mid-February.
By KELLY OLSEN
SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea and the United States wrapped up a week of tough free trade talks Friday, with negotiators saying significant work remains if they are to clinch a deal ahead of a fast-approaching deadline.
"There are still many differences on important issues," said Kim Jong-hoon, the chief of South Korea's negotiating team. "I believe we need to work harder to build momentum for the talks."
Kim, who offered little overall optimism, cited "no progress" in three of the most contentious issues -- antidumping laws, automobiles and pharmaceuticals. He spoke to reporters after the end of the five days of negotiations, the sixth round since June.
Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler, Kim's opposite number, offered a decidedly more upbeat assessment, though concurred that much needs to happen if gaps are to be bridged in coming weeks.
"There are tough issues on the table in this negotiation, there's no doubt about it," she told reporters at an earlier press conference. Still, she cited a "new mood and spirit of intensity" in the talks.
"My view coming out of here this week is that this deal can be done," she said.
Negotiators aim to slash tariffs and other barriers on a wide range of goods and services between the two nations, which already do 72 billion in business a year.
If successful, a deal would be the biggest for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. South Korea, the world's 10th-largest economy, is the seventh-biggest trading partner for the U.S.
Cutler also cautioned against undue pessimism, saying that breakthroughs usually come at the very end of the negotiating process.
For Seoul and Washington, that is just around the corner.
The two sides need to wrap up a deal by the end of March if they want to take advantage of President George W. Bush's special trade authority, which makes it easier to get agreements through Congress.
Kim announced that a seventh round of talks will be held in Washington for four days beginning Feb. 14. Cutler said it was uncertain if more rounds would be needed.
Earlier this month, Cutler and Kim met in Hawaii. There they were joined by Kim's boss, South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong, as well as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia.
Cutler said to expect more such meetings and contacts in coming weeks as the effort to clinch a deal intensifies.
"Both sides realize how much there is at stake," she said.
The effort has gone into overtime after the two sides failed to achieve an initial, albeit informal, goal of wrapping up a deal by the end of last year.
Apart on several issues
They remain apart on a range of issues. South Korea, for example, wants the U.S. to soften its antidumping laws and refuses to include its rice market in the deal.
The U.S. wants to sell more autos and pharmaceuticals to South Korea.
Though Bush's so-called "fast track" negotiating powers -- meaning he can submit a deal to Congress for a straight yes-no vote with no amendments -- expires July 1, various administrative and legal requirements mean a deal needs to be wrapped up 90 days before that.
Lawmakers in both countries will need to debate and ratify the deal, though votes may not come for months.
Cutler stressed that any agreement has to be a good one.
"We don't do low-quality FTAs," she told reporters from foreign news agencies earlier Friday. "We do high-quality FTAs."
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