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All night South Korea-U.S. free trade negotiators yet to reach a deal

All night South Korea-U.S. free trade negotiators yet to reach a deal

Hours after what the United States initially said was a deadline for concluding free-trade talks with South Korea, the two sides were still meeting Saturday with prospects for a deal unclear.
The talks aimed at slashing tariffs and other barriers to trade between two of the world's leading economies dragged on all night, with few details emerging.
Steve Norton, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative, had said the deadline for the talks to end was midnight Friday in Seoul (1500 GMT).
Early Saturday, however, Norton said prospects for the timing of an announcement on whether a deal would be reached were unclear, as negotiations in several sectors, including agriculture, were still going on.
"If we go past midnight by a few hours it doesn't mean we still can't succeed," he said.
Around sunrise, nearly seven hours after midnight, neither side had emerged to speak to reporters.
Concern for the talks was raised as the deadline approached when the White House hinted that the marathon negotiations could fail to yield an agreement.
"The talks are not going well," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Friday in Washington. "Unless the negotiations show some signs of significant progress in the next few hours, this agreement will most likely not come together."
A South Korean negotiator, who would not let his name be used because of the sensitivity of the talks, said late Friday that it was still impossible to say whether they would be successful or not.
South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia have been meeting at a Seoul hotel since Monday, trying to bridge gaps in contentious issues such as autos, agriculture and textiles that have so far defied solution.
If successful, the trade deal would be the biggest for Washington since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and the biggest by far for South Korea.
The need to conclude the negotiations is dictated by the expiration on July 1 of U.S. President George W. Bush's special "fast track" authority to submit trade agreements to Congress for straight yes-or-no votes without amendments.
Bush, however, must inform Congress of his intent to sign a trade deal by Monday, or 90 days before the authority expires, and must also submit the document at the same time for various reviews.
Though the U.S. side gave no reason for the earlier stated midnight deadline, it was believed by South Korean negotiators and media to be because officials in Washington needed to clear the contents of deal by the close of business Friday in the United States.
Both Congress and South Korea's National Assembly will ultimately need to approve an agreement if one is reached, though debate and final votes are likely to take months.
In an apparent bid to break the impasse, Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun spoke by telephone Thursday, and agreed to urge negotiators to find ways to wrap up the talks.
In a potential sign of trouble in the event a deal is reached, a group of leading U.S. lawmakers blasted the administration's stance in the talks, calling in particular for a tougher line on auto trade.
"These negotiations need a significant course correction," Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and two other representatives wrote Thursday in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.
"The first goal must be to get right a basic policy that stands up for U.S. businesses and workers in the global marketplace," they said in the letter, made public Thursday.
South Korea has refused to discuss including its 8.5 trillion won (US$9 billion; euro6.8 billion) rice market in the deal, claiming the staple food is a "sensitive sector" that should be excluded, and has warned that it was ready to walk away if the U.S. pushed too hard on the issue.
Other bottlenecks holding up a deal are trade in autos and Seoul's demand that goods made in a small North Korean industrial zone by South Korean companies be included.
Government officials on both sides say an agreement would boost economic ties between two countries that already do more than US$75 billion (euro56 billion) in trade a year.
South Korean opponents, however, claim an influx of cheaper U.S. imports will lead to job losses and potentially damage livelihoods.
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Associated Press Writers Kwang-Tae Kim and Jae-Soon Chang in Seoul contributed to this report.