The latest effort by the United States and South Korea to reach a landmark free-trade agreement got off to a rocky start Monday, with Washington saying talks may carry over into 2007, while Seoul reportedly criticized a US offer on tariff reduction.
The two sides opened their fourth round of negotiations since June on the southern resort island of Jeju, where thousands of demonstrators opposing free trade with the US called for the talks to be scrapped.
Since announcing their intention to launch the negotiations in February, both sides have consistently said they wanted to reach a basic agreement by the end of 2006. That is now in question.
"We are still trying to conclude this agreement by the end of this year or early next year," US Assistant Trade Representative Wendy Cutler told reporters, suggesting the talks, which she acknowledged have been tough, may drag on.
The timetable is important because US President George W. Bush's legal authority to "fast track" a deal expires in mid-2007 and both the US Congress and South Korea's National Assembly need time to debate and vote on any deal.
Fast-tracking allows US envoys to negotiate an agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendments.
Calling that authority a "window of opportunity," Cutler added, however, that it "doesn't mean that the United States or (South) Korea are going to rush to conclude this agreement."
The two governments are seeking a deal that officials say will boost economic growth by increasing trade between the world's largest and 10th-largest economies.
The stakes are high. The accord, if achieved, would be the largest for the US since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.
"We have US$72 billion in two-way trade so it's only natural that there are a lot of issues at hand to be negotiated and frankly a lot of concerns and sensitivities on both sides that need to be addressed," Cutler said.
Cutler and her South Korean counterpart, veteran trade diplomat Kim Jong-hoon, kicked off the latest round with a handshake earlier in the day at a swank hotel in Seogwipo, a city at the southern tip of Jeju.
(China Daily October 24, 2006)