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SEOUL, South Korea
South Korea and the United States ended a third day of talks aimed at jump-starting a long-stalled trade agreement, offering no clues on progress a day before their presidents meet.
Washington and Seoul have been holding what are seen as make-or-break negotiations to infuse new life into the deal to slash tariffs and other barriers to trade that was signed in 2007 when previous administrations were in power. It remains unratified by lawmakers in both countries.
Progress has been slowed by U.S. demands that South Korea take steps to remedy its surplus in auto trade and further open its market for American beef. The global financial crisis in 2008 and recession that followed also sapped momentum.
Trade chiefs from the two countries, who met daily from Monday, ended Wednesday's session, said Lee Jung-min, an official at Seoul's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. South Korea, which had held press conferences after negotiating sessions the previous two days, planned no briefing Wednesday, she said.
The U.S side has held no briefings since the talks between South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk began.
President Barack Obama, who arrived in Seoul on Wednesday evening ahead of the Group of 20 economic summit, said in June that he wanted the issues resolved by the time he meets South Korean President Lee Myung-bak during the visit. The two leaders are scheduled to meet Thursday.
Washington says that South Korea must address the imbalance in bilateral auto trade and beef access issues before the free trade agreement can be submitted to Congress. Obama has said he wants to send it to lawmakers within a "few months" after his visit to Seoul.
Earlier Wednesday, the chief of the biggest U.S. business lobby said the countries must quickly clinch the deal and get it implemented or the United States risks losing out to rivals negotiating similar agreements with South Korea.
"Failure cannot be an option," Thomas Donohue, president of the Washington-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told a meeting of the local American Chamber of Commerce in Korea. Leaving the agreement unratified would cost U.S. jobs and exports as the European Union and individual countries implement free trade deals with Seoul, he said.
South Korea signed a free trade agreement with the European Union last month and they are aiming to have it take effect in July of next year. South Korea, which has been aggressive in pursuing such deals, also has trade pacts in effect with India, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other countries.
Choi Seok-young, Seoul's top free trade negotiator, told reporters Tuesday after the second round of talks that South Korea and the U.S. had yet to significantly narrow differences.
Both Kim, the trade minister, and Choi have said this week that the U.S. has been keenly interested in South Korea's standards for auto mileage and emissions, suggesting Washington sees those as barriers to market access and is seeking their relaxation.
Peter Roskam, a Republican serving in the House of Representatives from Illinois and who is a member of a bipartisan working group in Congress committed to passing the free trade agreement, said he is optimistic the negotiations will succeed.
"I think there's an urgency to this," he said.
Roskam, visiting Seoul for meetings with South Korean officials, spoke after attending Donohue's speech. He said the agreement will have an easier time getting ratified "if the auto issue and the beef issue are dealt with in a satisfactory manner."
Figures compiled by auto industry groups in South Korea show that it exported 449,403 vehicles to the U.S. last year, while South Koreans purchased 6,140 vehicles made by American manufacturers based on vehicle registrations.
Those figures do not include the 200,371 vehicles sold in the U.S. last year by Hyundai Motor Co. that were made at its American plant nor the 114,845 sold in South Korea by GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co., the South Korean unit of General Motors Co.
South Korea halted imports of American beef after a Canadian-born cow infected with mad cow disease was discovered in the U.S. in 2003. Seoul eventually agreed to resume imports, but huge street demonstrations in response forced the government to backtrack and limit shipments to younger cows considered less at risk. The U.S. says its beef is safe.
Bilateral trade between South Korea and the U.S. totaled $66.7 billion in 2009, down sharply from $84.7 billion in 2008 as global commerce suffered during the economic downturn.
(This version corrects description of working group as being in Congress in 13th paragraph)