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U.S., South Korea trade chiefs to meet on deal

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top U.S. and South Korean trade officials will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday in Columbia, Maryland to try again to resolve differences blocking U.S. approval of a free trade agreement, U.S. officials said.

It will be the first meeting between U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon since the two sides failed at the recent Group of 20 summit in Seoul to meet a self-imposed deadline for reaching a deal on outstanding beef and auto trade concerns.

The renewed effort comes one week after a North Korean military strike on a South Korean island raised tensions in the region to the highest in at least two decades. U.S. and South Korean warships held military exercises on Monday, prompting concern from China and threats of war from North Korea.

Even so, U.S. trade officials said there would be a trade deal only if South Korea agrees to better terms for American automakers than the United States got when the pact was originally negotiated and signed in 2007.

"We do not necessarily expect to complete an agreement this week. Our objective is to use these discussions to advance our negotiations," said Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office.

"To do that, we will need to see movement on the outstanding issues, particularly the opening up of the Korean market to American autos," Guthrie added.

John Brinkley, a spokesman for South Korea's embassy in Washington, declined comment ahead of the talks.

TAX AND REGULATORY BARRIERS

Both Ford Motor Co and Chrysler complain that the pact negotiated by the administration of former President George W. Bush does not do enough to tear down tax and regulatory barriers they blame for low sales in South Korea.

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

U.S. trade officials have refused to say what changes they are asking South Korea to make in the 2007 agreement. It is believed they are pushing for a slower phase-out of remaining U.S. tariffs on cars and trucks.

The United States has also pressed South Korea to accept U.S. car mileage and emission standards to remove an impediment to U.S. sales in the South Korean market.

Guthrie declined to say what, if any, changes the United States would be willing to make on its side to compensate South Korea for modifying the auto terms of the pact.

Some lawmakers and beef groups also want South Korea to commit to a process to remove remaining barriers to U.S. beef exports, consistent with international food safety guidelines.

South Korea has been adamant that its remaining beef import restrictions, which stem from the discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. herd in 2003, are not up for negotiation at this time.

Tens of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets in protests in 2008 when President Lee Myung-bak gave into U.S. demands for a complete re-opening.

To help stop the furor, U.S. industry agreed to ship beef only from cattle not older than 30 months, which is considered the least risky. Under that voluntary pact, the United States has recovered much of its lost sales.

Guthrie's brief statement on this week's negotiations did not mention the beef issue specifically. But U.S. officials have identified it in the past as a top concern.

"Our principles and objectives remain the same. ... Whether we reach agreement will depend on whether we can achieve our negotiating objectives," Guthrie said.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Will Dunham)

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