S Korea, US FTA talks progress

Seoul, October 25:

South Korea on Wednesday reported progress on the third day of tough talks with the United States on a free trade agreement.

“We’ve completed a review of a new US offer to reduce tariffs on some 1,000 industrial goods and made some progress,” Lee Hae-Min, deputy delegation chief, said after the morning session, Yonhap news agency reported.

He said the two sides expected talks on industrial goods to end later Wednesday, a day earlier than scheduled.

Industrial goods are only one of 18 categories being covered by the fourth round of talks which began last June. South Korean officials said the sector, which is less sensitive than others, is the main focus of this round.

On Tuesday the US tabled a revised proposal to immediately remove tariffs on as many as 1,000 industrial items, South Korean officials say. In total, the proposed free trade accord would cover some 10,000 items.

Among the industrial items under review at talks in the southern island of Jeju, auto parts, flat-panel television sets, toys and shoes are of particular interest to Seoul.

Its officials on Monday walked out of one committee examining the sector in protest at apparent US unwillingness to make concessions.

“There was a substantial change in the US position,” chief South Korean delegate Kim Jong-Hoon was quoted as saying Wednesday.

“Originally, the US offered a tariff elimination on some 90 industrial goods but (this) offer calls for abolition of tariffs on about 1,000 items immediately,” a senior South Korean delegation member told Yonhap on condition of anonymity.

In return, South Korea may be asked for concessions in its sensitive agricultural sector as well as in services and other areas like autos in which the US is strong.

Farmers’ groups and others say cheap US imports could destroy their jobs and thousands have staged protests in Jeju this week. Riot police used water cannon and batons to keep hundreds of protesters at bay Tuesday.

On Wednesday, demonstrations were less physical.

Some 70 people staged a “three-steps-one-bow protest” for about two hours in Seogwipo town, an AFP photographer saw. They walked three steps, knelt and bowed their heads to the ground like Buddhist pilgrims.

The activists, carrying banners reading, “Stop FTA” and “No to FTA”, later staged a rally but police kept them some distance from the meeting venue.

The current round of talks ends Friday. Both sides want to wrap up the overall negotiations by year-end so Congress can ratify the deal before President George W. Bush’s “fast-track” trade authority expires in June.

If the two sides reach an accord, it would the biggest trade pact for the US since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

South Korea is the seventh-largest trading partner and seventh-largest export market for the United States. Two-way trade was valued at 72 billion dollars in 2005, according to US figures.