Korea Free Trade Agreement A Raw Deal For U.S. Beef Exporters

Hwang Doo-hyong, Yonhap News WASHINGTON, April 21 (Yonhap) -- The Obama administration has dismissed calls by some congressmen for South Korea to allow wider access to its beef market before the ratification of a pending free trade deal. "The beef issue remains a top priority for the administration, and we will continue to urge Korea to open its market to the full range of U.S. beef and beef products," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a letter to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) early this month, according to the online magazine "World Trade Online." Kirk emphasized the importance of clearing the Korea FTA through Congress as soon as possible. "The biggest barrier to U.S. beef sales in Korea is the 40 percent tariff levied against U.S. beef imports," he said. South Korea bans shipments of beef from cattle over 30 months old due to fears of mad cow disease, which prompted weeks of street rallies against U.S. beef in Seoul in 2008. Beef was not discussed in December when Seoul and Washington produced a supplemental agreement to address U.S. concerns over lopsided auto trade, the biggest hurdle to congressional approval of the Korea FTA, signed in 2007 under the Bush administration. The revised deal calls for a delayed phase-out of auto tariffs in return for Washington's concessions on pork and medicine. Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has threatened to vote against the deal unless South Korea makes new concessions such as "accelerated reductions in the tariffs on U.S. beef until it agrees to accept the full range of U.S. beef exports." He also serves on the Finance Committee, which is to deliberate the Korea FTA before a full Senate vote. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), Finance Committee chairman, has also said he will not endorse the Korea FTA without further progress on the beef issue. Montana is said to be the biggest source of beef from older cattle. The U.S. beef industry supports the FTA. U.S. beef shipments to South Korea more than doubled to US$518 million last year from $216 billion a year earlier. South Korea was the second biggest U.S. beef market, worth $815 million, in 2003 when Seoul banned imports after a few cases of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, surfaced in the U.S. Kirk expressed hope Wednesday that Congress will begin deliberating the Korea FTA early next month when the Easter recess ends, repeating the Korea FTA will soon be sent to Congress separately from similar deals with Panama and Colombia. Some Republican congressmen have threatened to block Obama's nomination for commerce secretary unless the Panama and Colombia deals are sent together with the Korea FTA. Commerce chief Gary Locke has been appointed U.S. ambassador to China. Kirk has urged Congress to approve the Korea deal "this spring" so as not to lag behind the EU, which ratified a similar deal with Seoul set to take effect on July 1. Kirk last week repeated calls on Congress to move "now" to ratify the Korea deal, saying similar deals with Colombia and Panama will be ready "in a matter of weeks." An agreement with Panama that took effect Monday allows exchanges of tax information to prevent the Latin American state from serving as a tax haven. Washington also reached a new deal with Bogota early this month on labor rights, which have served as a stumbling block to congressional approval of the trade agreement since its signing in 2007. The Korea FTA, the biggest trade deal for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, as well as the Panama and Colombia deals, was negotiated under the Trade Promotion Authority Act of 2002, which requires Congress to vote yes or no without amendments within 90 days of the deal's submission. Read original post here.