WASHINGTON — With US President Barack Obama and his main foes both embracing a trade pact with South Korea, opponents are racing against the clock to regain momentum while supporters are leaving nothing to chance.
Obama, delivering his annual State of the Union address, pressed lawmakers to act "as soon as possible" on the trade agreement which would lift 95 percent of tariffs between the United States and the fourth-largest Asian economy.
His stance marked a rare point of agreement with the rival Republican Party which swept November elections and have pressed Obama to go further by moving ahead as well on pending trade deals with Colombia and Panama.
Han Duck-Soo, the South Korean ambassador to Washington who has spent months persuading lawmakers and business leaders to back the deal with his country, said he was "definitely confident" that the two legislatures will approve it.
He said that negotiations were complete and that a final text would be ready soon. US Trade Representative Ron Kirk has set a goal of ratification by July when the European Union will enter its own trade pact with South Korea.
The South Korea deal was first drafted under former president George W. Bush and Obama opposed it as a senator. But Obama says the revised pact would support 70,000 US jobs and believes a concerted effort to boost exports can revitalize the US economy.
Former opponents including the Ford Motor Co. and United Auto Workers labor union support the pact as renegotiated by the Obama administration as it gives more time for the United States to end tariffs on South Korean cars.
But the AFL-CIO, the largest US labor confederation, and the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen have vowed to fight the pact, which they argue would primarily benefit corporations.
A group of left-leaning South Korean lawmakers, along with labor and farm activists, visited Washington in late January to counter their government's advocacy of the trade agreement and form common cause with US opponents.
While US policymakers say the trade pact would boost a key alliance, the visiting lawmakers warned it could also breed resentment against the United States -- particularly among South Korea's farmers.
"This agreement would only further polarize Korean society so that people will suffer more and more and a very small portion of society will get richer," said Kang Ki-Kab, a farmer turned lawmaker from the Democratic Labor Party.
Chun Jung-Bae, a lawmaker of the main opposition Democratic Party, called for a "mass uprising" in South Korea against the pact but said it was also critical to stop ratification in the US Congress.
"If this agreement gets passed in the United States, that will have a great impact in Korea. If it doesn't, then we see that as a very positive step toward stopping this agreement," Chun said.
The agreement also faces opposition from US lawmakers in ranching states who want South Korea to buy more beef. Seoul has pushed back after the beef dispute triggered major protests in 2008.
US critics of free trade agreements question if exports themselves would create jobs. Instead, they want more pressure on China to revalue its currency which they believe is artificially undervalued.
Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, "will continue to make the case that it is a mistake to pursue the same kind of trade deals that ballooned our trade deficit and led to massive job loss," said a spokeswoman, Meghan Dubyak.
A number of Democrats campaigned on trade criticism in November's election but lost to Republicans, who traditionally have been more supportive of free trade deals.
However, a number of the newly elected Republicans come from the right-wing populist Tea Party movement, some of whose members are deeply skeptical about international agreements.
Christopher Wenk, senior director for international policy at the US Chamber of Commerce, said that the business federation saw "strong bipartisan support" for the Korea free trade deal but was talking with all new lawmakers.
"Obviously we are not taking anyone for granted. We are going to be reaching out to them aggressively, one by one," Wenk said.
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