By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) — Implementing a bilateral trade deal with the United States as well as a number of key regional players makes South Korea a “natural candidate” to join ongoing discussions for the Washington-led Pacific Rim trading bloc, but it needs to make a stronger commitment in wider areas, a senior American official said Monday.

Wendy Cutler, acting deputy of the U.S. Trade Representative, said the 2012 free trade agreement (FTA) between Seoul and Washington boosted bilateral economic ties by lifting tariff barriers in a number of areas, paving the way for participation in a broader trading bloc.

Cutler, the chief negotiator for the pact commonly known KORUS FTA, made the remark after leading negotiations in Japan last week on a more comprehensive U.S.-backed trade bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), that involves 12 countries.

“TPP, in many respects, is KORUS plus agreement…. Korea’s commitment to a high standard for agreements in the KORUS makes it a natural candidate for negotiations for the TPP,” Cutler said during a Seoul meeting hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.

Wendy Cutler, acting deputy of the U.S. Trade Representative, speaks in Seoul at a meeting hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea on March 9, 2015.  In her speech, she said South Korea is a good candidate to join negotiations for the Washington-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Yonhap)

Wendy Cutler, acting deputy of the U.S. Trade Representative, speaks in Seoul at a meeting hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea on March 9, 2015. In her speech, she said South Korea is a good candidate to join negotiations for the Washington-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Yonhap)

Cutler said Washington was welcoming when Seoul expressed initial interest in November to join the TPP, noting the trade deal was designed to be an “open platform” to invite other countries prepared to live up to its standards.

“We realized that Korea plays an important role in the regional economy as it has free trade agreements with many others in the region,” she said. “From the U.S. perspective, Korea’s membership meaningfully contributes to the value of the TPP and increases its benefits for other parties.”

South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, has several free trade deals with major economies such as the European Union and China as well as in Southeast Asia and Latin America to spur its export-driven economy.

Cutler said U.S. officials have been in consultations with their Korean counterparts to inform them of TPP chapters that go beyond the KORUS FTA to figure out whether they can work out differences in those areas.

“There are same areas between KORUS and TPP, but there are important areas where Korea will need to do its homework to figure out things where they can move,” said Cutler. “There are areas they (Korean officials) will need to carefully consider whether they’re prepared to join the TPP and to assume obligations in such areas as environment, state of enterprises, e-commerce, intellectual properties and technical barriers of trade.”

Cutler described pursuing negotiations with 11 other nations for 29 chapters of rules and tariffs as extremely complicated, calling it a “multi-layered chess game.”

While supporters of the TPP initiative recently voiced optimism over reaching a deal soon, a final trade pact still faces many obstacles. Japan and the U.S., the largest economies in the TPP framework, have yet to find common ground over market access for autos and agricultural products.

One of the imminent tasks in Washington is approval by the U.S. Congress of the so-called Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) that would give President Barack Obama the authority to “fast-track” a trade agreement. That would limit Congress to a yes or no vote with no opportunity to amend the deal.

“Trade is really a front and the center issue now in Washington and in the United States,” Cutler said. “The U.S. government is working hard to secure a TPA bill. Congress is working to work out a bipartisan bill and encouraging them to do quickly, and at the same time, we’re continuing to work hard (on) negotiations with the TPP.”

ejkim@yna.co.kr

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