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U.S. working hard to ratify Korea FTA this spring: USTR

   WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is working hard to clear the pending free trade deal with South Korea through Congress this spring so as not to lag behind the European Union, which ratified a similar deal with Seoul set to take effect in July, the chief U.S. trade official has said.

   "The EU-Korea trade agreement is scheduled to take effect on July 1 of this year," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the Texas Chamber of Commerce in Austin on Friday, according to a transcript released by his office. "The moment that agreement goes into effect, tariffs on thousands of European exports will be reduced or eliminated, potentially putting American producers at a competitive disadvantage if tariffs on U.S. products remain in place. We don't want that to happen, so we're working hard to win approval from Congress this spring."

   South Korea's National Assembly is moving to approve the free trade deal with the EU so it could take effect on July 1 as scheduled.

   "Korea is also moving toward trade agreements with its other trading partners like the EU, China, and Australia, whose exports compete against American goods and services in many sectors," Kirk said.

   The South Korean legislature is awaiting U.S. Congress to approve the Korea FTA first to facilitate its ratification in South Korea, where the liberal major opposition party is set to oppose the trade deal despite the ruling party's majority in the 299-seat unicameral assembly.

   Some Congressional Republicans want to consider the Korea FTA concurrently with similar deals with Colombia and Panama, but Kirk has dismissed that as "a huge mistake."

   The USTR is still negotiating with Panama and Colombia to discuss U.S. concerns over labor rights, alleged abuse of union leaders and some other issues so that they do not hinder the deals' passage through Congress.

   Kirk said earlier this month that the Obama administration will present the revised Korea FTA first to lawmakers within weeks, hoping Congress will be able to approve it "this spring."

   Seoul and Washington early this month exchanged a supplemental agreement reached in December to address U.S. concerns over lopsided auto trade, which has served as the biggest hurdle to getting congressional approval of the Korea FTA since it was signed in 2007 under the Bush administration.

   The revised deal calls for a delayed phaseout of auto tariffs, among other things, in return for Washington's concessions on pork and medicine.

   The Korea FTA was negotiated under the Trade Promotion Authority Act of 2002, which mandates Congress to vote yes or no without any amendments within 90 days of the deal's submission.

   In a message to Congress attached to his budget for the 2012 fiscal year, Obama last week stressed the need for early ratification of the deal with South Korea as a means of creating jobs by doubling exports within five years.

   In his State of the Union address last month, Obama also called on Congress to ratify the Korea FTA "as soon as possible," hoping the deal "will support at least 70,000 American jobs."

   The U.S. International Trade Commission has said the Korea FTA will help South Korea increase shipments to the U.S. by $7 billion while enhancing U.S. exports to South Korea by $11 billion annually.

   Some studies show the deal would increase annual two-way trade by more than $20 billion.

   The U.S. goods trade deficit with South Korea was $10.6 billion in 2009, down $2.8 billion from 2008.

   (Yonhap News)

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