SEOUL Congress could ratify an ambitious free trade deal with South Korea in the next few months, provided a simmering dispute over beef imports is settled, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea said on Monday.
South Korea and the United States in April 2007 struck a landmark free trade agreement (FTA) that studies said would boost their two-way, $78 billion annual trade by $20 billion. The deal has not yet been approved by legislatures in either country.
"We see a good window of opportunity to build the necessary momentum to get the FTA debate going in Washington later this spring and to try to get the Congress to ratify KORUS (the Korea-U.S. trade deal) by mid-summer," Alexander Vershbow said at an American Chamber of Commerce in Korea meeting.
"It won't be easy. Things that matter rarely are."
U.S. lawmakers have threatened to block the deal, which would be the biggest since the North American Free Trade agreement some 15 years ago, unless South Korea settles a separate dispute by fully opening its market to U.S. beef imports.
South Korea allows only imports of boneless U.S. beef from cattle younger than 30 months, after lifting a blanket ban on all imports in 2003 following an outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States.
Vershbow said U.S. beef has been deemed safe by an international board and there is no scientific justification for keeping it out of the South Korean market any longer.
"We certainly won't be able to build the necessary congressional support for the FTA's ratification without resolving this issue."
South Korea's parliament began debating the deal in February.
Although it has broad popular support, analysts do not expect its approval until after a parliamentary election on April 9 when liberals who oppose the deal are expected to lose control of the legislature to conservatives who support it.
Vershbow said if the deal is not approved, it could seriously damage ties between Washington and Seoul.
"It would raise questions here in Korea about just how reliable a partner the United States is".
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by David Fox)