(AP) - Top U.S. and South Korean negotiators acknowledged challenges Monday in concluding an ambitious free trade agreement but expressed confidence they can hammer out an accord.
"I'm very optimistic about these talks," Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler told reporters after the two sides began their first session in South Korea following a week of negotiations last month in Washington. "I'm not contemplating any prospect of failure."
Cutler and her counterpart, experienced South Korean trade diplomat Kim Jong-hoon, opened the talks with a handshake in a Seoul hotel, where nearly 2,000 riot police provided security outside amid demonstrations against the proposed accord that aims to slash tariffs and other trade barriers between the two countries, reports Trend.
The talks face strong resistance from South Korean labor groups, especially farmers who have protested against any reduction in protections for agriculture, particularly rice. The U.S. wants more access to South Korea's agriculture, automobile and pharmaceuticals markets, among others.
Kim appeared more cautious, saying that as the negotiations proceed they naturally become harder.
"We're in the second round now, so that means it's more difficult," Kim told The Associated Press. "It's getting tougher and tougher. But we want to work constructively."
The two sides aim to wrap up an agreement by the end of this year so they can submit it to their legislatures for debate and approval.
President Bush's authority to "fast track" the trade deal enabling U.S. envoys to negotiate an agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a yea-or-nay vote without amendments runs out in mid-2007.
Still, Cutler suggested that while she doesn't see any dealbreakers on the horizon, she won't give in on key issues just to meet a timetable.
"We're not going to rush to any deadline and we're not going to sacrifice substance over a need to rush a deal through," she said.
Police expect about 50,000 protesters to take to the streets this week, while groups opposed to the talks hoped for numbers to top 100,000. The National Police Agency was mobilizing some 20,000 officers.
The South Korean government on Friday vowed stern measures if violence breaks out at anti-free trade demonstrations planned this week in conjunction with the talks.
Major demonstrations are scheduled for Wednesday, including a partial strike by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the county's two major labor organizations.
The free trade proposal has been drawing regular protests in South Korea since even before the two governments announced in February that they would enter the negotiations.
If successful, they would be the biggest such accord for the U.S. since the North American Free-Trade Agreement of 1993.
Besides agriculture, the status of a South Korea-backed industrial zone in North Korea is seen as another major sticking point in hammering out an accord.
South Korea wants goods produced there subject to the agreement, while Washington has adamantly opposed the idea, saying a deal should only cover goods manufactured in the Republic of Korea, the South's official name.