World and Nation

US, South Korea Restart Talks On Ambitious Free Trade Pact

U.S. and South Korean trade negotiators began a hurried round of talks on Thursday as Seoul agreed to resume U.S. beef imports in a concession aimed at smoothing the path toward what would be Washington's most ambitious free trade agreement in 15 years.

South Korea brightened the prospects for the talks when it decided to ease its quarantine standards so that U.S. beef can re-enter South Korea, once the third-largest overseas consumer of American beef.

But Washington's chief representative in the talks, Wendy Cutler, the assistant U.S. trade representative, was not satisfied with the limited scope of beef imports made possible under the South Korean concession.

"Our Congress continues to make it abundantly clear to us that there will be no FTA without a full reopening of the Korean beef market," Cutler said at a news conference, referring to a free-trade agreement.

South Korea's initiative on beef came as the two countries started five days of talks, the eighth round since the negotiations began in June last year. It came after South Korea's promise to show "maximum flexibility" to clinch the proposed deal, which some studies say could add $20 billion to the two countries' annual $72 billion in trade.

Both sides hope to conclude a deal by the end of the month to take advantage of President Bush's expiring fast-track trade authority. By requiring lawmakers to cast a simple yes or no vote without amendments, the authority makes it easier to push a trade deal through Congress. While the authority does not lapse until June, an agreement would have to go to Washington by the end of this month because lawmakers would need time to review it before a vote.

While tussling over the beef dispute, the negotiators must also overcome differences over U.S. demands for wider access in the South Korean market for cars, medical products and farm products, and over South Korean calls for changes in U.S. anti-dumping laws that Seoul says are unfairly applied to its computer chips, steel and textiles.