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U.S. and South Korea "far away" from trade deal

COLUMBIA, Maryland (Reuters) - Talks between the United States and South Korea on politically difficult beef and auto trade issues that are key to U.S. approval of a bilateral free-trade agreement stretched into a third day on Thursday.

South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon told reporters before heading into an afternoon session that the two sides were still "far away" from an agreement. The negotiations were originally scheduled for two days.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk seemed to offer a more upbeat assessment, telling reporters "things are good" when asked how the talks are going. He did not elaborate.

Asked earlier if a deal was possible on Thursday, Kirk said: "We're going to work on it."

Although Kim has said both sides were committed to getting a deal this week, U.S. officials have said their main goal was to make progress on the outstanding issues.

Negotiators failed to meet a self-imposed deadline last month to solve the problems.

South Korea is the United States' seventh-largest trading partner and eighth-largest export market. Last year, the United States exported $28.6 billion worth of goods to South Korea and imported $39.2 billion of products from that country.

The two countries signed a bilateral free-trade agreement on June 30, 2007, but it has been stuck in Congress because of opposition from the U.S. auto industry. South Korean barriers to U.S. beef have also delayed action.

The United States is asking South Korea to renegotiate the auto terms of the agreement, something that is politically difficult for Seoul to do without getting concessions of equal weight from Washington in return.

The United States exported 7,663 cars and light trucks to South Korea in 2009 while it imported 476,857 from automakers there, according to U.S. Commerce Department figures.

Ford Motor Co and its supporters in Congress complain the lopsided trade is due to South Korean tax and regulatory barriers the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) fails to adequately address.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus also wants Seoul to commit to a process for fully reopening its market to U.S. beef exports, another politically difficult demand because of strong South Korean public opposition.

U.S. officials have declined to say if the United States is willing to make concessions on its side to compensate South Korea for changing the terms of the deal the two countries signed in 2007 after more than a year of negotiation.

The deal would be the second largest U.S. free trade agreement, after the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. Supporters also see it as linchpin of U.S. economic engagement in the fast-growing Asian region.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Philip Barbara)