US, S Korea to launch free trade accord

Seoul, January 30:

The United States and South Korea will launch free trade negotiations soon as Seoul has removed a major hurdle to the talks by opening wider its film market, officials said.

“The South Korean-US free trade agreement (FTA) talks begin soon after economy and trade ministers fine-tune a policy through a public hearing,” finance and economy ministry spokeswoman Song Kyung-Jin said. Song, however, failed to confirm media reports the politically-sensitive trade talks would be formally launched in the coming week. “We have no fixed date yet,” she added.

Seoul may announce the start of negotiations on February 2, Yonhap news agency reported last week when Seoul decided to cut by half its protectionist quota for homegrown movies to facilitate trade talks with Washington. The quota system, adopted in 1966, forced Korean cinemas to show domestic movies on at least 146 days a year, amid complaints from Hollywood. Seoul promised on Friday to cut the quota to 73 days from July 1.

The decision was immediately ‘lauded’ by US trade representative Rob Portman, but was also condemned by Korean movie producers, actors and directors as an ‘anti-cultural coup d’etat.’ But South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun said in a speech this month that striking an FTA with Washington was a top priority for his government.

South Korea, the fourth largest economy in Asia, is the seventh largest US trade partner. Bilateral trade in the 11 months to November 2005 topped $65 billion. The South Korean-US FTA would be the biggest free trade pact involving Washington.