Congress must keep bargain on Korea beef: Gutierrez

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez speaks to the media during a news conference regarding the U.S.-South Korea FTA talks at a hotel in Seoul May 16, 2008. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration is not to blame for a beef deal that has triggered widespread protests in South Korea and caused President Lee Myung-bak’s popularity to plummet, a top U.S. official said on Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary Carlos Gutierrez also told Reuters the United States would not renegotiate the deal, which fully reopened the Korean market to U.S. beef exports more than four years after mad cow disease was found in the United States.

He said it was up to the U.S. Congress to soothe relations by approving an outstanding free trade pact with South Korea.

Senate Finance Committee Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat whose panel has jurisdiction over trade, and other farm state lawmakers had insisted South Korea fully reopen its beef market before Congress would vote on the free trade pact.

“Now, that Korean officials have gone out on a limb and accepted our beef -- and as you know they’re paying a huge political price -- our Congress is standing still,” Gutierrez said. “So, at this point (the Koreans) feel like they have given everything and we haven’t given anything back.”

On another issue, Gutierrez said he doubted a recently concluded free trade agreement between Canada and Colombia would help persuade the U.S. Congress to approve a pending U.S. free trade pact with Colombia.

“There have been so many compelling arguments to persuade Congress” and they haven’t acted, he said.

Editing by Doina Chiacu