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U.S. and South Korea eye date for trade pact meet

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and South Korean negotiators met last week to discuss preparations for high-level talks on a bilateral free trade agreement that faces tough opposition in the Congress because of concern about its auto provisions, U.S. trade officials said on Monday.

"The two officials exchanged views on the timing and venue of an upcoming ministerial-level meeting on the trade agreement," said Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office.

President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agreed in June to resolve differences blocking the pact by the November 10-11 Group of 20 nations summit in Seoul.

The two countries signed the agreement more than three years ago. It has languished because of U.S. auto industry concerns that it removes remaining U.S. tariffs on South Korean cars but does not do enough to eliminate non-tariff barriers that keep American cars out of South Korea.

Action also has been delayed by U.S. frustration with South Korean restrictions on imports of U.S. beef.

Since the Obama-Lee meeting, officials on both sides have said they expect to meet the G20 deadline, but have been vague about when South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk would meet to hash out a deal.

Guthrie, in her statement, said she still did not have a date or location for the meeting.

"The precise timing and venue will be decided through further consultations between the two sides," she said.

Last week, Wendy Cutler, assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan, Korea, and APEC affairs, and South Korean deputy trade minister Choi Seok-young met on the sidelines of an APEC meeting in Japan to begin discussing arrangements for a meeting between Kirk and Kim, Guthrie said.

The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement has the backing of many U.S. business groups outside of the auto sector.

However, it faces opposition from many labor, family farm, environmental, manufacturing, consumer protection and faith organizations who have pledged to work to defeat the pact in Congress if it is not modified to address their concerns.

The groups said in a letter to Obama last week: "We cannot support outdated trade agreements, such as (former President George W.) Bush's Korea FTA, that benefit serial offshoring multinational corporations at the expense of America's small businesses, workers and farmers and the environmental, health and public interest laws on which all Americans and Koreans rely."

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Mohammad Zargham)