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FTA talks in race for accord as Uri foes stand tough

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Mar 27,2007
Negotiators shake hands in Seoul as Korea and the United States race to complete a free trade agreement this week. The two sides began a final push yesterday to strike a deal before an end-of-month deadline. [YONHAP]
Down-to-the-wire talks between Seoul and Washington to hammer out a free trade agreement started here yesterday as political battle lines over the pact hardened between President Roh Moo-hyun and his former allies.
Former Justice Minister Chun Jung-bae, a founding member of the Uri Party, President Roh’s former party, began a hunger strike in front of the National Assembly yesterday. “The free trade agreement is an important issue that can have a serious influence on the economy and society,” Mr. Chun said in a statement. The lawmaker urged the administration to halt negotiations and let the issue be decided by the next administration.
Former Uri Party chairman Kim Geun-tae said recently those trying to close a deal by the end of this month would have to trample over his body. Former unification minister Chung Dong-young also opposes concluding negotiations within the term of the current administration.
All three vocal opponents are possible candidates for president in December. Once close to the president, they are trying to find ways to distance themselves in advance of the polls.
Former prime minister Han Myeong-sook, also a presidential hopeful, has said that she will wait for the negotiations to conclude before issuing a judgement on the pact.
Meanwhile, on the first day of the talks, Kim Jong-hoon, the Korean chief negotiator, warned yesterday that Seoul would not be bound by the March 31 deadline.
In 10 months of negotiations, the countries have been unable to resolve sticking points on rice and automobiles. If it happens, the pact could add as much as $20 billion to the two countries’ current $71.5 billion in bilateral trade.
Although both sides are hoping to reach an agreement by the end of the month, Mr. Kim said, “If the United States goes too far, for instance, demanding that the rice market be opened, we are ready to call it a rupture of negotiations.”
Washington wants to conclude a deal this month in order to get it before Congress before President George W. Bush’s fast-track negotiating authority expires in July.
In a related development, Seoul has told China it wishes to seek a free trade agreement, according to a government official who declined to be identified.
“Korea suggested a comprehensive free trade pact which would include not only goods, but also services, investment, government procurement and others,” said the official.


By Brian Lee, Hwang Young-jin Staff Writers [africanu@joongang.co.kr]



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