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Fri, Apr 06, 2007 - Page 10 News List

US, S Korea free trade deal wavers on beef dispute


Three days after clinching a mega free trade deal with South Korea, the US warned on Wednesday it would not sign the agreement unless Seoul allowed full access to US beef imports.

"We would not sign it if we do not have a clear path on beef," said Sean Spicer, the spokesman for US Trade Representative Susan Schwab, after a media briefing on the deal clinched in Seoul over the weekend.

It was the clearest indication yet that the administration of US President George W. Bush would tear apart the agreement if Seoul does not relent and lift a ban on US beef over fears of mad cow disease before the end of June.

Amid the strong beef lobby, several key US lawmakers have threatened to kill the free trade deal crafted after 10 months of negotiations without the full reopening of the South Korean beef market.

South Korea was a major market for US beef -- worth an annual US$850 million -- before a 2003 import ban imposed over fears of mad cow disease.

Seoul last year agreed to accept US boneless beef but rejected three shipments after discovering tiny bone fragments.

"We have made very clear and have been very clear all along that we don't believe our Congress will feel comfortable approving this deal without the Korean beef market being fully reopened," Deputy US Trade Representative Karan Bhatia told the media briefing.

"And that is something I think both sides do appreciate," he said.

US Senator Max Baucus had said that the negotiators in Seoul made only "vague promises to resolve this issue at some point in the future" and added that he would block the trade agreement until the South Korean beef market is reopened.

"I will oppose the Korea Free Trade Agreement, and in fact I will not allow it to move through the Senate, unless and until Korea completely lifts its ban on US beef," Baucus, head of the powerful Senate finance committee, said this week.

Aside from beef, US auto industry supporters allege the trade pact does little to address hidden Korean barriers to the auto trade. There were also concerns that rice has been excluded from the deal.

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