Obama, Lee hustle to wrap up FTA

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Obama, Lee hustle to wrap up FTA

Leaders of Korea and the United States reaffirmed yesterday their commitment to resolve issues blocking a free trade agreement before the Group of 20 Summit in Seoul next week.

According to Blue House spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung, President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama spoke on the phone yesterday morning and discussed the free trade pact.

“The two leaders agreed that the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement should become an exemplar to promote global free trade and to upgrade the two countries’ alliance to the next level,” Kim said. “They also agreed to join efforts to settle the outstanding FTA issues before the G-20 Summit.”

The phone conversation on the free trade agreement came on the eve of U.S. midterm elections. It also followed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meeting with Lee on Saturday in Vietnam, where she said Obama hoped to conclude the FTA talks before the summit.

The Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush administrations concluded trade negotiations in April 2007, and the treaty was signed two months later. Neither of the countries’ legislatures ratified the agreement because of contentious issues, including auto and beef.

In June, Obama and Lee said that they would direct their governments to resolve remaining obstacles by November. Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk met for two days in San Francisco last week, but the outcome of their talks was not made available.

While the negotiators were tight-lipped, Yim Tae-hee, Blue House chief of staff, told reporters Monday that the U.S. has raised issues about automobiles, although he said it was not seeking to revise the agreement. Yim said the issues were not major, adding that “a negotiation is about give-and-take, so I believe the two sides will eventually meet half-way.”

On the eve of midterm elections, the White House also repeated Monday its commitment to settle the issues. According to Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes, Obama will arrive in Seoul on Nov. 11 and will have a bilateral summit with President Lee at the Blue House. The topics of the meeting will include both the G-20 and U.S. efforts to ratify the free trade agreement, he said.

“As the President has long said, we want to try and address the outstanding issues regarding the FTA in order to bring it forward for approval,” said Mike Froman, Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economic Affairs. “Those outstanding issues fall largely in the areas of autos and beef. We have been engaged with our stakeholders here at home - in Congress and other stakeholders - as well as with the Koreans to work through those issues. Those discussions are underway. I can’t predict at this point how they will proceed, but we’re going to put every effort into achieving an acceptable agreement, a satisfactory agreement by the time the President comes to Seoul.”

Froman refused to elaborate on what kind of concessions Washington wants from Seoul.

“There’s a whole variety of issues around auto market access,” Froman said. “Rather than get into the details ... we’ve had a series of discussions about a range of issues in the auto sector. Those discussions will continue over the next week and a half or so.”

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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