By Hwang Doo-hyong
WASHINGTON, April 7 (Yonhap) -- The Obama administration Thursday reiterated calls on Congress to move quickly to ratify the pending trade deal with South Korea, defying congressional Republicans who insist on considering the deal together with similar deals with Colombia and Panama.
"Now is the time to pass this agreement so American families can realize the many benefits of the U.S.-Korea trade agreement," Demetrios Marantis, deputy U.S. trade representative, told a hearing of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade. "Working together, let's get the U.S.-Korea trade agreement done now."
The remarks by Marantis come a day after U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk dismissed calls by some Republicans for the administration to present the Korea FTA together with deals with Colombia and Panama.
Kevin Brady (R-TX), chairman of the subcommittee, insisted on getting the three deals together.
"The time to move forward with all three is now," he said. "I firmly believe that we should consider all three agreements by July 1. Our goal is simply to speed up our Latin American agreements to catch up with the Korea agreement."
The White House Wednesday announced a new deal with Colombia on labor rights, which have served as a stumbling block to the deal's congressional approval since its signing in 2007, saying the action plan with Bogota "will lead to greatly enhanced labor rights in Colombia and clear the way for the U.S.-Colombia Trade Agreement to move forward to Congress."
On the Panama pact, the Obama administration has also made progress in labor rights and the exchange of tax information, the chief U.S. trade official said, adding that the timing for the deals' presentation will depend on consultations with Congress.
Marantis said that his office has "started engaging in technical discussions" on the Korea FTA's congressional deliberation, adding, "We're ready to engage in technical discussions on the actual text."
He dismissed concerns about the Korea FTA allowing North Korean products access to the U.S. market.
"Goods produced in Kaesong do not receive any benefits under the U.S.-Korea trade agreement," he said. "Any change to how Kaesong is treated under the agreement would require Congress to pass and the president to sign legislation. So there is nothing in this agreement that provides any benefits to Kaesong."
More than 150 South Korean firms currently employ about 47,000 North Korean workers in the South Korean-invested industrial park in the North's border town of Kaesong, established in 2004 under former liberal South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to seek active engagement with North Korea.
U.S. labor groups oppose inclusion of the Kaesong Park in the free trade deal between Seoul and Washington "over the atrocious labor rights record" in the reclusive communist state.
Kirk has said the Obama administration will submit the Korea FTA first, and called on Congress to approve it "this spring" so as not to lag behind the European Union, which ratified a similar deal with Seoul set to take effect in July.
Marantis said that the Korea FTA "will strengthen our trade and investment ties to Korea's $1 trillion economy."
"It will bind a key strategic ally closer to us, anchor our economy to the dynamic Asia-Pacific, and help us keep our edge over international competition," he said. "It is a key element in our economic strategy in the region. Most importantly, the U.S.-Korea trade agreement will create substantial export opportunities, establish strong enforcement provisions, and support new export-related jobs."
He said that his administration is "committed to further opening beef markets across Asia, including Korea, consistent with international science," touching on complaints by some congressmen that a supplemental deal with South Korea reached in December failed to address wider access to the South Korean beef market.
The revised deal addresses U.S. concerns over lopsided auto trade, the biggest hurdle to congressional approval, calling for a delayed phase-out of auto tariffs in return for Washington's concessions on pork and medicine.
Some leading Republicans have threatened to block President Barack Obama's nomination for Commerce Secretary Gary Locke's replacement unless Obama sends to Congress the Korea FTA together with the deals with Colombia and Panama. Locke was recently appointed U.S. ambassador to China.
The Korea FTA was negotiated under the Trade Promotion Authority Act of 2002, which requires Congress to vote yes or no without amendments within 90 days of the deal's submission.
The South Korean National Assembly is waiting for the U.S. Congress to approve the Korea FTA first to facilitate its ratification in South Korea, where the liberal major opposition party fears an adverse impact on the agricultural industry.
Obama has said the Korea FTA will support more than 70,000 jobs and help double U.S. exports within five years as the world's biggest economy struggles to escape the recession that began in late 2008, the worst in decades.
The International Trade Commission has estimated that the Korea FTA would annually add 10 to $12 billion to the U.S. GDP and roughly $10 billion to U.S. exports to Korea.
In a report released earlier in the day, the ITC said the Korea FTA's implementation "would likely lead to an increase in U.S. sector exports to Korea of $194 million (54 percent)" and that "U.S. imports from Korea of products in the broader motor vehicles and parts sector would rise by $907 million (11 percent)."
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