United States and South Korea to hold first round of free trade talks in June

South Korea and the United States will begin formal talks in June aimed at forging a proposed free trade agreement, officials said Monday, with negotiations expected to focus on contentious issues including rice and automobiles.

The first round will take place on June 5-9 in Washington, Kim Jong-hoon, South Korea 's chief negotiator, told reporters after preliminary discussions with U.S. officials on setting the agenda for the negotiations.

The two sides will hold four subsequent rounds of talks this year in July, September, October and December, Kim said. The timing of further negotiations will be determined later.

The two countries announced last month that they would begin talks on a free trade pact that, if successful, would be the biggest for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Both sides are expected to focus on completing an agreement by June 2007, but Kim said they "haven't set a deadline for conclusion" of a deal.

The Bush Administration's authority to negotiate an agreement and submit it to Congress for a pass or fail vote without amendments runs out in June 2007.

The talks face strong resistance from South Korean farmers who have protested violently against any reduction of protections for agriculture, especially for rice.

The U.S. wants more access for its automobiles, steel and textiles in South Korea .

Some 20 farmers held a rally in front of the ministry on Monday, denouncing the South Korean government's move to forge a free trade deal with Washington .

"The government should not hasten to strike a Korea-U.S. FTA without clear preparations," the farmers said in a joint statement. "We can never accept a Korea-U.S. FTA which forces the sacrifice of agriculture."

Kim told reporters the South Korean government "will prepare a (proposal) that best reflects our interests."

Monday's talks in Seoul were focused on preparations, including how to set up committees for industry sectors to be discussed as part of the deal, South Korea 's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

Kim on Monday met with Wendy Cutler, his U.S. counterpart, and other American officials.

Cutler planned to give a speech at a gathering of U.S. businesses in Seoul on Tuesday.

South Korea 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, reports the AP.

D.M.

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Author`s name: Editorial Team