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(Yonhap Interview) FTA level playing field for U.S. automakers in S. Korea: Kirk
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Monday that a free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea, approved by Congress last week, will enable South Koreans to buy American cars "at an affordable price" and reaffirmed a plan to renew a push for opening South Korea's beef market wider.

   "We expect that the KORUS FTA, along with the December 2010 exchange of letters on autos, will provide American automakers with increased market access opportunities and a level playing field in the South Korean market," Kirk said in a written interview with Yonhap News Agency.

   Kirk, who took office in 2009, is credited with careful maneuvering to get Washington's largest trade pact since the 1994 NAFTA passed despite drawn-out political wrangling over trade issues. In the Senate, 83 members supported the deal -- the greatest number of yea votes recorded in a U.S. trade agreement vote.

   He pointed out that tariffs and some non-tariff barriers have restricted American automakers' access to the South Korean market and increased the cost of producing vehicles for sale there.

   "We expect the level playing field provided by KORUS FTA and the 2010 agreement will give South Korean customers more choices by making more high-quality American automobiles available at an affordable price," he said.


Kirk did not provide an estimate of the increase -- a key question in the U.S. and South Korea, which seek to put the FTA into effect in the near future.

   South Korea ships more than 400,000 vehicles, mostly Hyundais and Kias, to the U.S. each year and produces about 200,000 in that country at local plants. The U.S. exports fewer than 10,000 cars to South Korea, according to market data.

   Such an imbalance was behind the Barack Obama administration's demand for additional talks on the FTA signed in 2007. In December 2010, the two sides struck a deal to delay tariff reductions for South Korean automobiles for five years and grant U.S. autos broader access in the Asian nation.

   The outlook for the FTA's impact on auto trade is split. Some officials and experts expect significant hikes in the sale of U.S. vehicles in South Korea, while others doubt the American vehicles' competitiveness against Japanese and European rivals in a market dominated by small and compact cars.

   Kirk, who serves as President Obama's principal trade advisor, negotiator, and spokesperson on trade issues, also made clear that Washington will restart efforts to expand American beef exports to South Korea.

   Once the KORUS FTA comes into force, he said, the U.S. will "request consultations under the existing beef protocol with South Korea to discuss the Protocol’s full application, recognizing that the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement and the Protocol are separate agreements."

   U.S. beef access to South Korea remains a thorny trade issue for the Obama administration. For the South Korean government, it is a politically sensitive matter.

   In 2003, South Korea was the third-largest market for U.S. beef before Seoul banned its imports due to worries over mad cow disease. The Lee Myung-bak administration decided to resume American beef imports in 2008, prompting anti-government street protests. Under the beef protocol reached months later, South Korea currently imports U.S. beef produced from cattle only under 30 months of age.

   In a bid to persuade U.S. lawmakers to back the FTA, Kirk openly said earlier this year that the beef issue will be addressed as well after the accord goes into effect.
Kirk said Obama plans to sign the FTA within this month and expressed hope that South Korea will follow suit.

   "President Obama worked closely with members of Congress to garner historic levels of support for the KORUS FTA. Similarly, the United States respects and supports President Lee’s efforts to work with the South Korean National Assembly to approve the KORUS FTA," he said.

   He said the passage of the FTA has buoyed the U.S. trade agenda including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, an Asia-Pacific regional trade initiative.

   "TPP remains a priority because of its job- and growth-generating potential, its potential to inject new important ideas into global trade policy, and the role it will play in helping the American economy embrace the world’s most dynamic region -- the Asia-Pacific," he said. "TPP member countries are on track to fulfill the mandate set out to reach the broad outlines of an agreement by the APEC Leaders’ summit in Honolulu. This week, we expect further steady progress to be made in the ninth TPP negotiating round in Lima."