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U.S.,S.Korea near trade pact amid noise of protest
President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun discussed the deal by phone on Thursday, agreeing that what would be the biggest U.S. trade deal for 15 years served the interests of both countries.

"The two leaders ... decided to direct their negotiators to engage in the talks with maximum flexibility on both sides," a South Korean presidential statement said.

They have until late Friday Washington time (Saturday morning in Seoul) to reach a deal that by some estimates could boost two-way trade by an extra $20 billion from the current nearly $72 billion a year.

Otherwise they cannot benefit from the U.S. president's fast-track authority, expiring on June 30, to negotiate a pact that Congress cannot amend, merely approve or reject.

Officials said failure to meet the deadline could mean talks dragging on for years, unless the White House could persuade a reluctant, Democrat-controlled Congress to extend the authority.

On Thursday Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives told the administration they were deeply concerned about the way the talks were going, and angry at the lack of progress in South Korea's protected auto sector.

"We now have an $11 billion deficit in auto trade which is 82 percent of the total deficit between our two countries," they said in a letter.


But South Korea is less worried about U.S. car imports than about the threat of agricultural imports overwhelming its heavily subsidized farmers who claim they will lose billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs if their market is opened up.

"(The agreement) is not expected to have a huge impact for Hyundai," said a spokesman for South Korea's largest vehicle producer for which the United States is a major market.

South Korean auto firms are more concerned about competition from imports from neighboring Japan.

The 10 months of talks have been dogged by large and occasionally violent protests in South Korea, mostly over the perceived threat to farmers.

In particular rice, which sells in South Korea for four times the international price, has been seen as a potential deal breaker and may be dropped from the free trade agreement.

Demonstrators have been holding candle-light protests outside the central Seoul hotel where negotiators have been holed up since Monday, racing to put the last touches on an agreement before the end of the month.

Many South Korean leaders say that by opening up the country to competition, the trade pact will help strengthen Asia's third-largest economy which is being increasingly squeezed by giant neighbors China and Japan.

The United States wants South Korea to reduce tariffs on car imports and cut barriers it sees as blocking sales. It has called for greater access for its pharmaceutical products and progress on a separate dispute about access for U.S. beef.

It also wants greater access to South Korea's lucrative financial services.

Seoul is pressing Washington to change anti-dumping laws it says are unfairly applied to its products.
MGR Archive 1.4.2007
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