South Korea-US FTA talks make progress

Seoul, January 17:

Chief US negotiator Wendy Cutler said on Wednesday that free trade talks, which have been bitterly opposed by farmers and unions, with South Korea had made headway in three of the most sensitive issues.

Both sides have left major disagreements — over US anti-dumping and countervailing rules, and non-tariff barriers in South Korea’s auto and drug markets — off the agenda in an effort to agree on less important issues first.

Those key topics have been tackled at informal meetings between Cutler and her South Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-Hoon, since the two countries started a five-day meeting on Monday. “We have made a lot of progress to date,” Cutler said in an interview with Yonhap news agency.

She said top US and South Korean negotiators would step up one-on-one meetings to move forward talks on forging a free trade agreement (FTA) within two months.

Washington needs an agreement no later than early April if it is to be cleared by the US Congress before US President George W. Bush’s powers to fast-track trade deals expire in June.

“My mood is upbeat and I feel we can do this,” Cutler said, describing high-level informal meetings as “extremely useful.” Asked whether progress was made at talks with Kim, Cutler said “Yes,” declining to disclose details, according to Yonhap.

Previous rounds have made relatively little headway, with the talks clouded further by a dispute over US beef.

Last year Seoul banned three US beef shipments due to the presence of small bone fragments in them, after it ended a three-year import ban imposed to guard against mad-cow disease.

South Korean officials echoed Cutler, calling for an early conclusion of the deal, but indicated there would be no major breakthrough this week, the sixth since last June.

“We must make as much progress as possible in this round,” Kim said in a dinner speech late Tuesday. “Both

sides have laid all their cards on the table and it’s not likely that any side will spring any surprise to the other,” he said.

Cutler said she wants to “move forward in all areas as far as we can get and both sides will look at the package in the end.” She was not optimistic about any breakthroughs that both sides would announce at the end of this week, Yonhap said.

“But, that does not mean the progress hasn’t been made. It means that we aren’t prepared to announce anything yet.”