Meeting in Seoul, South Korean and U.S. trade representatives are attempting to hash out a free-trade agreement that could add $20 billion to the countries' $72 billion worth of bilateral trade. However, because President Bush's fast-track trade promotion authority is set to expire this summer, any deal would need to be struck by the end of March.
U.S. officials have spoken optimistically and Assistant Trade Representative Wendy Cutler told reporters her team is ready to deal with "the tough issues."
One of those tough issues is South Korea's rejection of U.S. beef shipments after it lifted a bovine spongiform encephalopathy-related ban on U.S. beef this fall. U.S. officials are unhappy with South Korea's rejection of the beef shipments and Congress is unlikely to approve of a trade deal that does not include some resolution of the beef issue. Before banning U.S. beef after the discovery of BSE in Washington state in late 2003, South Korea was the second largest export market for U.S. beef.
Another tough issue will be South Korea's sensitivity in dealing with certain farm products, such as rice. Thousands of protestors gathered in Seoul Tuesday, arguing that the trade agreement would ruin South Korea's heavily protected agriculture industry and lead to job losses.
The same authority that forces Congress to either pass or reject a trade agreement made by the administration without being able to amend it also requires the administration to notify Congress 90 days before signing an agreement. Bush's fast-track authority runs out on July 1.