U.S., South Korea to begin 3rd round of free-trade talks

Tuesday, September 5th 2006, 10:15 pm
By: News On 6

SEATTLE (AP) _ The U.S. and South Korea will begin a third round of free-trade talks, hoping to make progress toward an accord that could be the biggest of its kind for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993.

Critics from both countries planned demonstrations throughout the week, protesting what they characterize as an unfair bias in favor of multinational corporations with only token attention to issues like workers' rights and environmental protections. The talks are to begin Wednesday in downtown Seattle.

``These deals aren't opening foreign markets for American-produced goods. They're greasing the skids to move more good jobs out of the United States faster,'' AFL-CIO spokeswoman Thea Lee said at a news conference Tuesday by U.S. and South Korean labor advocates.

Lee and other labor leaders said they fear the U.S.-South Korea accord will largely mirror NAFTA, which they blame for a rise in the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico and Canada, a loss of American jobs, and more poverty, stagnant wages and political unrest in Mexico.

Steve Norton, a spokesman for the U.S. trade representative's office, defended the talks as an effort to improve the economies of both nations.

``I think the record is pretty clear that countries who are open to competition, countries that are willing to trade with the rest of the world generally experience higher rates of economic growth and job creation than countries that don't,'' he said.

Norton insisted that talks remain in the early stages, with more discussions slated for October and likely December.

``I think it's premature to judge what this agreement will do or to assume it's going to look exactly like NAFTA or any other agreement,'' Norton said.

Wendy Cutler, the chief U.S. negotiator, is leading a team of more than 100 representatives from about 20 government agencies. Korea sent 200 representatives for the new round of talks, in which the sides hope to begin to hammer out the specifics of an agreement, Cutler said.

``We come to Seattle with the objective of making as much progress as possible, recognizing we are entering a new phase of the negotiations, where the real give-and-take will begin,'' she told a news conference Tuesday. ``We are under no illusions that this new phase will be easy.''

South Korea and the U.S. held their first round of free-trade negotiations in Washington, D.C., in June. A month later, the second round in Seoul ended amid bickering over drug reimbursements.

The United States wants more access for U.S. pharmaceuticals, automobiles, farm products and other goods, while Seoul wants South Korean products manufactured in North Korea to be subject to the agreement. The U.S. has said it can't accept that.

Both countries hope to have an agreement in place by the end of the year. The clock is ticking for the U.S. because President Bush's authority to ``fast track'' a deal expires in mid-2007. Fast-tracking allows U.S. envoys to negotiate an agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendments.

Speaking for the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Mi-sook Lee, vice president of the Korea Health and Medical Workers' Union, said protesters plan to demonstrate peacefully throughout the trade talks. A midday march and an evening candlelight vigil are planned for Wednesday.

Critics say they want negotiators to put the trade talks on hold and allow labor, environmental and other concerned groups to be more involved in the discussions.