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Obama gov't wants Congress to approve Korea FTA before July: Kirk

The Obama administration wants Congress to ratify the free-trade deal with South Korea before a similar pact between South Korea and the European Union goes into effect in July, the chief U.S. trade official said Thursday.

   "Our goal is to hand this agreement to Congress before the EU trade agreement goes into effect on July 1," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told a forum here. "Everything we're doing in terms of finalizing the text with the Koreans, working with committees, is with that July 1 goal in mind."

   U.S. businesses have expressed concerns that failure to ratify the Korea FTA promptly will undermine the competitiveness of U.S. products in South Korea once the Korea-EU FTA goes into effect.

   South Korea has five FTAs in force with 16 countries and has signed FTAs with the EU and Peru, which will take effect this year.

South Korea is also negotiating FTAs with Australia, Canada, Mexico and nine other countries, while considering talks with China, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

   China in 2004 replaced the U.S. as South Korea's biggest trading partner, with China's two-way trade accounting for 20.5 percent of South Korea's total trade volume in 2009, compared with 9.7 percent for the U.S., according to statistics from the International Monetary Fund.

   "The European Union is a strategic commercial ally of the U.S.," Kirk said, but added he did not want the Korea-EU FTA's implementation to result in the weakening of U.S. competitiveness in South Korea, the seventh biggest trading partner of the U.S.

   "In the next few months, the European Union trade agreement goes into effect with Korea," he said. "We need to ensure we maintain our leadership role in the world."

   Kirk did not elaborate on when the Obama administration will present the deal to Congress.

   "I want to reserve the space the president needs to lay out," he said, indicating President Barack Obama would talk about the timeline during his annual State of the Union speech on Jan. 25.

   Obama is expected to present the Korea FTA, revised in December, to Congress later this month.

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

   Obama has said he will send the deal to Congress early this year, hoping the deal will help achieve his ambitious goal of doubling exports within five years.

   Obama hopes the Korea FTA's ratification will give momentum to two other pending trade deals with Panama and Colombia, and his push for a similar deal with Japan, Australia, Malaysia, and several other Asian and Pacific Rim countries, the so-called Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership.

   Kirk dismissed chances of the Obama administration submitting to Congress the Korea FTA and two other FTAs concurrently, saying "We are committed to them. But we think, as attractive as it may sound to some, that would be a huge mistake to try to force all of the trade agreements into one lump vote along with Korea."

   Free trade is seen as one of the potential areas of close cooperation between Obama and congressional Republicans, who regained control of the House in the midterm elections in November.

   Many congressional Democrats, backed by trade unions, oppose free trade due to fears over further job cuts.

   Failure to present the deal to Congress by early this year would likely doom it, as Republicans vow to focus on domestic issues, including taxes and a reversal of Obama's health care reform policy, ahead of the presidential election in 2012.

   Kirk was optimistic about the Korea FTA's ratification by July.

"We believe we can get it done."

   South Korea's ruling Grand National Party, which has majority seats in the Unicameral National Assembly, says it will wait until the U.S. Congress ratifies the deal.

   U.S. Commerce Department statistics show the implementation of the Korea FTA will create 70,000 jobs in the U.S.

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