US and South Korea clinch new trade deal


WASHINGTON: The United States and South Korea broke through a three-year deadlock to seal a sweeping free trade agreement, which President Barack Obama hoped would renew US leadership in Asia.
The agreement lifts tariffs on 95 percent of goods between the countries within five years, in what would be the largest US trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1994.
After nearly four days of talks in suburban Washington, negotiators cleared a key hurdle by letting the United States move more slowly on lifting tariffs on South Korean cars after US automakers feared a flood of imports. The deal still needs ratification by the two countries’ legislatures. Obama won early support from a labour-backed congressman and Ford Motor, former staunch opponents of the deal.
As a senator, Obama was a critic of the deal first negotiated in 2007 under President George W Bush But Obama said his team reached “the best deal for American workers and corporations,” saying it would create 70,000 US jobs through new exports; an estimate disputed by critics. “It deepens the strong alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea and reinforces American leadership in the Asia Pacific,” Obama said in a statement.
In Seoul, President Lee Myung-Bak said the agreement would bring “huge benefit” to South Korea, which has embraced free trade deals as a strategy to promote an economy long in the shadow of economic giants Japan and China.
“When the FTA takes effect, South Korea will be the first country in the world that will have signed free trade deals with the United States, the EU and ASEAN and India,” he added.
Obama had hoped to finish the deal in time for his visit to Seoul last month for the Group of 20 summit, believing the agreement would boost close ally Lee, who is facing down soaring tensions with North Korea.
Negotiators failed to reach an agreement in time, largely due to concerns by US automakers worried about the immediate end to tariffs on cars. Under the renegotiated agreement, the United States will be allowed to keep its 2.5 percent tariff for five years, while South Korea would immediately cut its tariff in half to four percent.
Both sides would eliminate tariffs after five years. US officials said South Korea would also ease car safety and environmental standards that US automakers contend are a thinly disguised way to stifle foreign competitors through arbitrary requirements.
The revised agreement would let each US automaker export 25,000 cars per year that meet only US safety requirements, four times the current level. Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford Motor which had led opposition to the deal, hailed the Obama team’s “tireless efforts” efforts and said the new version offered “greater confidence that we will be able to better serve our Korean customers.”
Unlike many other issues, Obama may have an easier time winning approval for the trade deal after last month’s congressional election sweep by rival Republicans, as most opposition came from the president’s Democratic Party. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican senator, voiced support for the deal and hoped that the “more balanced Congress” will back it. “The goal of improving market access for American farmers, entrepreneurs and manufacturers is one that the president and I share,” the Kentucky senator said.
Representative Sandy Levin, a Democrat from the struggling automaking state of Michigan who is often critical of free trade deals, came out in support of the new Korea agreement.
“This was the only way to reverse the historic, lopsided pattern of one-way trade with South Korea,” Levin said. But Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat from the ranching state of Montana, withheld judgment on the trade agreement and said he was “deeply disappointed” that it did not address beef exports.
The United States has pushed South Korea to buy beef from older cattle. The issue is especially sensitive for Lee, who has faced major street protests by Koreans concerned about mad cow disease in US cattle.
US officials said beef exports have already grown and would rise further with tariff restrictions.
But they conceded that South Korea had not made concessions on the cattle age. Consumer advocacy group Public Citizen said the deal gave investors too much power.
“Choosing to advance Bush’s NAFTA-style Korea free trade agreement rather than the new trade policy President Obama promised during his campaign will mean more American job loss,” said Lori Wallach.