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Free-trade pact has to do a few more laps in South Korea

October 14, 2011 |  2:09 am

President Obama and his wife, Michelle, with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his wife, Kim Yoon-ok: South Koreans still have much work to do to pass a free-trade pact with U.S.
REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– The evolving U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement is still stuck in a bit of diplomatic "vroom-vroom" -– with some dangerous curves ahead.

Because the deal's main stumbling block has always been -– and continues to be -– the automobile.

With the ratification of the pact Wednesday by the U.S. Congress, President Obama says he'd soon like to see South Koreans driving Chevys, Fords and Buicks.

But on this side of the Pacific, and what still seems to be a looming trade wall, there are political forces that would like to see the still unapproved pact driven into the ground.

Although President Lee Myung-bak’s ruling Grand National Party wants to see the pact passed by next month, so it can take effect in January, many minority legislators are still griping that the proposed agreement favors the U.S.

Critics say concessions won by the Americans in the long-stalled pact, originally signed in 2007, force South Korea to open its market to U.S. automobiles, while the Asian economy barely managed to protect its interests in the areas of livestock and pharmaceuticals.

Now many here want South Korea and the U.S. to go back to the bargaining table and, as they say, sharpen some pencils, to return some leverage to a nation heavily dependent on trade.

And the reaction of critics to U.S. passage of the treaty? So what, they say, it takes two to do the trade tango.

"If the Assembly hurriedly goes for ratifying the bill over the next 10 or 20 days without making any changes, I'm afraid this could deal a serious blow to the national interest," warned one leading opposition lawmaker.

Analysts here say the campaign for next year's presidential election is playing a role in the battle. Call it the Korean version of the Republican-controlled just-say-no U.S. Congress.

An editorial in a leading Seoul newspaper suggested that if the divided U.S. government can reach consensus in what it called a "rare bipartisan achievement," the South Koreans should be able to do it too.

In a General Assembly known for its bitter theatrics and even fisticuffs, this could make for some interesting viewing.

Gentlemen, start your engines …

RELATED:

Help South Korea, not the North

The free-trade fight

U.S., South Korea Are Nearing Negotiations on Free Trade Pact

-- John M. Glionna

Photo: President Obama and his wife, Michelle, with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his wife, Kim Yoon-ok, at a White House state dinner Thursday. Credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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