South Korea is ready to consider creative solutions to open its market to more U.S. beef and auto imports to help win U.S. approval of a bilateral free trade agreement, South Korea's ambassador to the United States said on Wednesday.
Ambassador Han Duk-soo also said he was confident the two countries would resolve the troublesome issues by a November deadline set last month by U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
Just rest assured we will finish in accordance with the timeline set by President Obama and President Lee, Han said at an event with members of Congress and industry officials to push for approval of the deal.
South Korea is prepared to plunge headlong into the talks with the United States to come up with creative and mutually acceptable solutions, Han said.
Also at the event, The Emergency Committee on American Trade, a U.S. business group, released a letter to Obama urging passage of the Korea pact and other deals with Colombia and Panama.
The letter was signed by top executives from Microsoft, General Electric, Coca-Cola, Intel, Caterpillar, Wal-Mar and six other U.S. companies.
The United States signed the free trade agreement with its long-time ally three years ago, but it has not been ratified by Congress.
The two presidents' pledge to finally enact the pact follows the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which has been blamed on North Korea and reinforced the need for strong ties between Washington and Seoul.
U.S. automakers Ford Motor Co and Chrysler Group have opposed the deal on the grounds that it does not do enough to open the South Korean market to U.S. cars.
General Motors GM.UL, which is the principal owner of GM Daewoo in South Korea, has been neutral on the pact.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and other lawmakers from cattle-producing states have also pressed South Korea to remove barriers to U.S. beef imports.
Seoul has already taken some steps on that issue, but Baucus says more must be done.
The Obama administration, facing strong opposition to trade deals from many Democrats in Congress, had not moved aggressively to resolve either concern.
But at a G20 summit last month in Toronto, Obama and Lee pledged to resolve remaining issues by the time Seoul hosts the next G20 meeting in November.
Obama also said he hoped to submit the agreement to Congress for approval by early 2011.
Han defended the pact's current auto provisions, but said South Korea wanted to find ways to encourage more imports of American cars, particularly large-engine cars.
He said there was room for growth because the United States sells only 8,000 vehicles each year in South Korea, compared with European Union sales of 40,000 and Japanese sales of 30,000.
Han also highlighted a groundbreaking ceremony for an advanced car battery plant that Obama will attend on Thursday in Holland, Michigan, as a good symbol of cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea.
The new facility is owned by Compact Power, a subsidiary of LG Chem Ltd, South Korea's largest chemical company. It also received U.S. economic stimulus funds.
Since Obama and Lee's June 26 announcement, groups such as the AFL-CIO labor federation and Public Citizen have raised concerns about investment, financial services trade and other provisions of the pact they say also need to be fixed.
Han said the United States and South Korea should state publicly just what items they intend to negotiate. But he gave no indication how soon such an announcement would come or when the two sides would hold face-to-face talks.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon will speak again soon to discuss next steps, a USTR spokeswoman said. A call scheduled for Wednesday had been delayed, she said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Andrea Ricci, Dan Grebler, Andrew Hay)