Free-trade pact with South Korea still not finished

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President Obama and President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea failed to reach an agreement Thursday on a long-awaited free-trade agreement, saying they had decided instead to give their negotiators more time to work out differences, which revolved around Korean imports of American autos and beef.

The two men said at a news conference that they expected a deal to be reached soon. By soon, Mr. Obama said, he did not mean months.

“We want this to be done in a matter of weeks,” he said.

Even so, the delay is a setback for Mr. Obama, who is on a 10-day, four-nation swing through Asia that he has promoted as a mission to boost the American economy and create jobs. He has made trade — and in particular, the doubling of American exports over the next five years — a centerpiece of his agenda, and it had been widely expected that he would leave here with a deal with the South Koreans in hand.

Negotiators worked furiously through the night to resolve the last-minute sticking points, and Mr. Obama and Mr. Lee spent two hours in private meetings on Thursday, part of that time alone.

The two leaders discussed the trade agreement for about 40 minutes, White House officials said, but did not negotiate specific points. Ron Kirk, the United States trade representative and chief negotiator, told reporters afterward that the United States remained committed to reaching what he described as a “compelling” deal to help the president achieve his goal of job growth and doubling exports over five years. “We think this free-trade agreement can play a central role in that,” Mr. Kirk said, adding that it was “absolutely not” a setback for the president.

The announcement surprised close observers of the talks. Many had expected the two leaders to walk out with a deal in hand.

The biggest sticking point involves auto imports. In Washington, the Democratic leadership has been pushing forcefully for lower nontariff barriers to American exports of cars to South Korea, and for eased restrictions on American exports of beef, which has been a source of controversy since an outbreak of mad cow disease in 2003.

While the agreement would lower or eliminate tariffs on cars in both countries, the Obama administration pushed for further reductions in other barriers like emissions, mileage and safety requirements, and tax and insurance rules.

“If we can reach the standard for a fair trade agreement that the president has set out on particularly autos, we will move forward,” Jen Psaki, deputy White House press secretary who is traveling with Mr. Obama. “ We hope to continue making progress.”

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