U.S. businesses greets decision to start free trade talks in South Korea

Free trade negotiations between South Korea and the United States are a "historic opportunity," though sacrifices will be required from both sides to forge the deal, the head of a U.S. business association said Friday. The two countries announced Thursday in Washington that they had formally launched talks that, if successful, would be the biggest for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

The talks are likely to take at least a year and face strong resistance from South Korean farmers who have staged violent demonstrations to protest any scaling back of protections for agriculture, especially rice, the country's staple crop.

"We believe that this historic opportunity is going to give the two business communities increased momentum," said Tami Overby, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea. Still, she cautioned that reaching an agreement won't be easy.

"There will be winners and losers on both sides," she said. "On the Korean side, agriculture and services. On the U.S. side, steel and textiles." South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong, in Washington for the announcement, hailed the launching of talks was the most important event in U.S.-South Korean relations since the signing of their military alliance in 1953.

The South's biggest trading relationship, Kim pointed out, is with China, but he said the United States represents Seoul's most important partnership.

Washington considers South Korea a key nation for striking a free-trade deal. Seoul is the United States' seventh-largest trading partner while the United States is the second-biggest destination for South Korean exports after China, according to U.S. and South Korean government figures.

Both sides are expected to focus on completing an agreement by June 2007, when the Bush Administration's authority to negotiate an agreement and submit it to Congress for a vote minus amendments runs out, reports the AP.


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