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U.S. optimistic in fourth round of free trade talks with South Korea

U.S. optimistic in fourth round of free trade talks with South Korea

   The Bush administration still hopes to conclude a free trade agreement with South Korea by early next year.

   A U.S. delegation of about 100 government officials from nearly 20 different federal agencies are meeting with their counterparts this week on the South Korean island of Jeju. These officials are further divided into 16 negotiating groups and two working groups.

   The Bush administration provided Korea a new set of tariff offers in agriculture, industrial goods and textiles. In industrial goods, the administration has moved about $1 billion in trade to shorter time frames for tariff elimination. The administration provided an offer in textiles that moves more than $1.3 billion in trade to shorter periods for elimination, and offered similar commitments for $135 million in agricultural trade.

   “We have submitted these offers in an effort to spur progress this week in the talks,” said Wendy Cutler, assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan and Korea, at a press conference at Jeju.

   “The progress we seek this week is not just limited to tariffs,” she added. “It also involves movement on a series of non-tariff measures as well, that are addressed in various chapters of the FTA (free trade agreement).”

   Agricultural concerns in Korea, especially among the country’s rice farmers, have threatened to derail the progress of the free trade talks, now in its fourth round of meetings.

   “We, in the U.S., are well aware of Korean sensitivities in the agricultural sector,” said Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia, in a speech at Korea’s Yonsei University on Tuesday. “But, the notion that this will devastate the Korean agricultural sector is way off base.

   “First, no one is saying that immediate free trade in agriculture is a requirement of finalizing this agreement. Transition periods have been used in past FTAs to address sensitive products and would likely be employed here,” Bhatia said. “Second, history has shown us that FTAs don’t destroy agriculture production. If you look at NAFTA, for example, Mexican agriculture production increased by 14 percent after the FTA.”

   The Bush administration is eager to conclude a free trade agreement with Korea. The Asian country is the United States’ seventh-largest trading partner and the United States is Korea’s second-largest trading partner. There’s an estimated $72 billion in two-way trade between the countries.

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