A senior U.S. official said Monday that the United States and South Korea "cannot afford to fail" in talks meant to settle differences on a long-stalled free trade deal.
The comments by Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, come as U.S. and Korean officials scramble to reach a compromise before a Nov. 11-12 meeting between President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the Group of 20 economic summit in Seoul.
U.S Trade Representative Ron Kirk is meeting Tuesday in San Francisco with his South Korean counterpart to discuss the trade deal.
The Obama administration's focus on the Korean deal and its pursuit of the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, a small regional trade deal seen as a precursor to a broader Asia-Pacific agreement, are attempts to counter Asian worries about rising American protectionism.
Many U.S. lawmakers have been critical of free trade, often unpopular with American voters, ahead of next week's congressional elections. But opposition Republicans, who tend to be more supportive of free trade, are expected to make gains in the elections. Trade deals could be an area where the Democratic Obama administration could work with Republicans.
The U.S.-Korea deal to slash tariffs and other barriers on industrial goods and services was negotiated by the George W. Bush administration but has stagnated since it was signed in 2007. Since then, both governments have changed leaders, the global economy has faced turmoil and crisis and the United States has pushed South Korea to address its surplus in auto trade and allow more access to American beef.
Campbell didn't provide specific details of the negotiations. But he said officials are determined to settle differences before the G-20.
"Both sides understand the importance of this and the urgency, and I think there's very hard work that's under way," Campbell said in a speech at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "We cannot afford to fail. It is absolutely essential that we are successful with a Korea free trade agreement."
Obama said in June that he wanted to submit a deal to the U.S. Congress for approval within a "few months" after his visit to Seoul in November. South Korea's National Assembly must also ratify it.
Bilateral trade between South Korea and the United States totaled $66.7 billion in 2009, down sharply from $84.7 billion in 2008 as global commerce suffered during the economic downturn.
Part of the U.S. sense of urgency stems from a feeling that American companies could be missing out on a thriving market.
South Korea has implemented recent deals with countries ranging from Chile to India. And earlier this month Seoul signed a major deal with the European Union that is expected to come into force July 1, 2011, pending approval by the South Korean and European parliaments.