US commerce secretary: Trade pacts must wait

AP News
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Posted: Nov 13, 2009 5:52 AM

Trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama won't be put before Congress until it grapples first with President Barack Obama's pressing legislative goals, the U.S. commerce secretary said Friday.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Obama has an ambitious high-priority legislative agenda focusing on health care, financial regulation and alternative energy.

"Trade agreements are going to have to wait," he said at a luncheon hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. "Right now, the administration is focused on a very aggressive and very tight legislative agenda."

The lack of progress on a trade agreement likely will be a sore point during Obama's stop in Seoul next week during an eight-day trip to Asia that began Thursday in Japan and will also take him to Singapore and China.

South Korea and the U.S. did $84.8 billion in bilateral trade in 2008, making Washington South Korea's fourth-biggest trading partner after China, the European Union and Japan. The 27-nation EU is the largest foreign investor in South Korea, with $98.4 billion in trade last year.

In 2007, South Korea and the U.S. signed a deal to slash tariffs and other barriers to trade. However, the deal has yet to be ratified by U.S. lawmakers amid concerns about South Korea's automobile market.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said earlier this month that the U.S.-South Korea trade deal could bring South Korea as much as $11 billion a year in American goods.

But he criticized South Korea's "long-closed" auto market and said U.S. automakers must be able to compete on a "level playing field" in the South Korean market.

The Obama administration has said it is reviewing the agreement signed under former President George W. Bush.

South Korea has urged the U.S. to pass the long-stalled deal, which Obama is expected to discuss with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul next Thursday.

"It's been over two years," South Korea's trade minister, Kim Jong-hoon, said in Singapore on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. "If it's a responsible government, it should take the next step in a responsible way."

Kim emphasized that the accord is a "done deal" that is beyond further negotiation.

Locke did not speculate Friday about when Congress may debate the trade agreement bills.

"Congress is only able to take up issues sequentially; they can't seem to do it simultaneously," he said. "Healthcare costs are the absolute No. 1 priority of the administration."

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Associated Press writer Jae-soon Chang contributed to this report.