By Matt Spetalnick
SEOUL (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday that concluding a long-delayed free trade agreement with South Korea was a priority for the Obama administration, and it was committed to getting the deal done this year.
Clinton told a gathering of business leaders in Seoul that, beyond the economic benefits, the pact was "profoundly in America's strategic interest as well."
"Getting this done together sends a powerful message that America and Korea are partners for the long-term and that America is fully embracing its role as a Pacific power," she said.
U.S. and South Korean trade negotiators struck a deal in December on a free trade pact, which was signed in 2007 but had not been ratified for three years because of U.S. auto and beef industry concerns.
Both the U.S. Congress and the South Korean parliament have yet to pass bills to approve the pact, despite U.S. President Barack Obama's renewed push for ratification.
"I want to state as strongly as I can how committed the Obama Administration is to passing the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement this year," she told a gathering of business leaders in Seoul during a whirlwind trip through South Korea and Japan.
A U.S. official added that Washington hoped to have the FTA ratified by Congress well before an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has previously said the Obama administration wanted to win congressional approval of a free trade agreement before July. The agreement is pending in South Korea's parliament and is expected to be passed.
Clinton said the pact -- which Washington says will increase exports of American goods by $11 billion and create tens of thousands of jobs -- is ready for review by Congress.
Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, last month criticized Republicans for refusing to move ahead on the South Korea deal until the White House sends Congress implementing bills for long-delayed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.
PENDING TRADE DEALS
Republicans broadly support the South Korea deal, but have threatened to block a vote on the pact unless the White House also submits the other two pending trade deals for approval.
"This is a priority for me, for President Obama and for the entire administration," Clinton said. "We are determined to get it done, and I believe we will."
The United States and the European Union are racing against each other to be the first to seal a free trade agreement with South Korea, the world's 15th largest economy, hoping to get a jumpstart on the benefits of increased business deals.
The European Parliament approved a South Korea free-trade deal in February, clearing the way for the EU's largest bilateral free trade deal to take effect from July.
The shift in focus to Asia follows Clinton's attendance at a NATO conference in Berlin, where the alliance's foreign ministers faced strains over a Western air campaign in Libya against forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.
Clinton met South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday, who commended her for Washington's "exceptional leadership" in handling the situation Libya.
She was due in Tokyo later on Sunday for a flying visit in a show of support following last month's earthquake and tsunami disasters that killed thousands and crippled a nuclear plant.
(Writing by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Alex Richardson)