TORONTO — US President Barack Obama launched a new initiative Saturday to wrap up a free trade deal with South Korea delayed for three years due to market access problems over American beef and autos.
Obama ordered his officials to complete talks by November, when he visits Seoul for the next G20 summit, so that he can push the deal through Congress and implement it soon after.
"I want to make sure that everything is lined up properly by the time I visit Korea in November, and in the few months that follow that, I intend to present it to Congress," Obama said after talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak.
"It is the right thing to do for our country, it is the right thing to do for Korea," the US leader told reporters.
The trade deal signed under Obama's predecessor George W. Bush in June 2007 was touted as the biggest free trade agreement since the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
But it hit snags as Obama raised new concerns over market access for US autos and beef in South Korea.
Obama has asked US Trade Representative Ron Kirk to start discussions with his Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-hoon, "to resolve the outstanding issues in a way that levels the playing field for US producers," a senior administration official said.
During the past year, Kirk said his office conducted extensive discussions with "stakeholders" and congressional leaders to gain a detailed understanding of their concerns about the agreement.
"Now, at President Obama's direction, we look forward to finalizing ways to address these concerns, level the playing field for US workers and producers in the key sectors of autos and beef, and deliver to Americans the jobs and economic opportunity this agreement can bring," Kirk said in a statement.
"I expect to speak to Minister Kim today to express our intention to get to work as quickly as possible."
South Korea is the seventh-largest trading partner for the United States.
"South Korea has the 14th largest economy in the world, and our ability to compete in that market is critical to preserving and supporting new jobs for Americans," a US trade official said.
"This initiative aims to reverse the declining US market share of Korean imports (and) will contribute to President Obama's goal to double US exports by 2014."
Lawmakers from Obama's Democratic party who had campaigned against the deal appear ready to approve it.
"The president's announcement of a concrete plan to move the Korea agreement forward is great news for America's economy," said Democratic Senator Max Baucus, head of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
He called it "the most commercially significant trade agreement in more than a decade."
"But I've long held serious concerns about the unscientific barriers Korea has erected against American beef -- barriers that must be removed. I intend to work with both the administration and Korea to craft a plan to fully open Korea's market to safe and delicious American beef," he said.
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