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South Korea and U.S. reach free trade agreement

The United States and South Korea concluded a landmark free trade agreement Monday, a U.S. official said, culminating 10 months of negotiations in a final week of intense haggling that just beat a key U.S. legislative deadline.

The deal, which requires approval by lawmakers in both countries, is the biggest for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1992 and ratified in 1993. It is the biggest ever for South Korea.

Steve Norton, a spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, who told The Associated Press the deal had been reached, said details would be provided in a briefing later.

The two countries started negotiations to slash tariffs and other trade barriers last June in Washington, alternating meeting sites between the two countries.

Both sides strongly advocated a deal, saying it would boost trade and economic growth in the two countries, which already do more than US$75 billion (EUR56 billion) in trade a year.

But differences over trade in automobiles, agriculture, textiles, pharmaceuticals and other issues, including the status of South Korean goods manufactured at a small enclave in North Korea, quickly threw up obstacles.

Another key issue was U.S. beef, which has remained absent from South Korean markets for over three years after mad cow disease was discovered in the United States in 2003. The U.S. said a deal could never be approved by Congress unless that issues was resolved.

It was not immediately known what compromises were made to reach the agreement.

In the final round of talks in Seoul, South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia and their subordinates held eight days of marathon talks, sometimes going all night, to clinch the deal.

The two sides had exceeded self-imposed deadlines twice since Saturday and it was unclear whether they would be able to finish in time or reach an agreement at all.

The negotiators were under pressure because U.S. President George W. Bush must notify Congress that he plans to sign a trade agreement 90 days before his special Trade Promotion Authority expires July 1, meaning the agreement had to be concluded by April 1.

That so-called "fast track" authority allows Congress to ratify or reject, but not modify, trade deals negotiated by the White House.

Originally, the U.S. said a deal needed to be wrapped by March 31, but on Saturday U.S. officials said the deadline was April 1 in the United States.

Shortly after midnight Monday in Washington, the White House released the text of a letter from Bush to congressional leaders, dated April 1, stating his intention to enter into a free trade agreement with South Korea.

He said the agreement "will generate export opportunities for U.S. farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and service suppliers, promote economic growth and the creation of better paying jobs in the United States, and help American consumers save money while offering them greater choices."

"The agreement will also further enhance the strong United States-Korea partnership, which has served as a force for stability and prosperity in Asia," Bush said.

But South Korean labor and farm groups have denounced the deal, demonstrating on the streets of the country, especially the capital Seoul, saying an influx of U.S. imports will cost jobs and harm livelihoods.

A protester set himself on fire Sunday shouting "Stop the Korea-U.S. FTA" outside the hotel where negotiators were meeting. He was being treated for third-degree burns, police said.

U.S. businesses welcomed the agreement.

"For (South) Korea, this FTA is not only the largest deal ever completed, but it also ensures Korean products will have preferential access in the U.S. market, the largest in the world, ahead of its competitors, most notably Japan and China," the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea said in a statement.

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