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Korea weighs in on timing of joining TPP

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

By Byun Duk-kun

SEJONG, Dec. 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea may still be able to join ongoing negotiations for a regional trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), although it may have come to the table just a little too late, perhaps a bit intentionally, according to officials Monday.

It wasn't until Nov. 29, nearly three years after the 12-nation TPP negotiations were launched in 2010, that South Korea has sought to join the negotiations.

Last week, Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler said it would be "very difficult for any country, including Korea," to join the ongoing negotiations, noting that the TPP talks are already in the "end game."

The United States, who initiated the talks, is seeking to conclude the negotiations as early as the end of next month, far short of the time Korea needs to settle the terms of its participation with TPP partners.

"We are certainly late, and it will be impossible if we delay any longer. But as yet, there is still a possibility," Woo Tae-hee, South Korea's assistant trade minister, told Yonhap by phone.

"The country will still have to go through all necessary steps, including bilateral negotiations with all other participants. It means we will have to do it very effectively and very efficiently if the country does decide to take part in the ongoing negotiations," Woo said, noting the negotiations with the U.S. for a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) took 16 months.

For South Korea, any decision on the TPP requires a balancing act.

The TPP is a key part of Washington's efforts to boost its economic presence and growth in the Asia-Pacific region, and is also seen as a U.S. counter to a rising China.

In addition to its bilateral FTA negotiations with China, South Korea is taking part in talks with China for a three-way FTA that also involve Japan, as well as a separate regional trade deal led by China, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

"The government believed December was the best timing for the announcement of its interest (in the TPP)," South Korea's trade minister Yoon Sang-jick said in his talks with reporters last week.

"In a sense, (such a timing) was a negotiation strategy," he added, apparently inferring that if the country had participated earlier in the TPP, its ongoing talks for a bilateral FTA with China may have been hampered.

Choi Kyong-lim, Seoul's deputy trade minister, also cited the China factor.

"There certainly was such a strategic consideration in deciding the timing for the announcement of the country's interest. In other words, we had waited for progress in negotiations with China," he told Yonhap. Progress in the country's bilateral FTA negotiations with China, the world's second-largest economy, could also add significant weight to South Korea's TPP and other FTA negotiations, he said.

Shortly after the Nov. 29 announcement, South Korea virtually concluded its FTA talks with Australia while also making significant progress in FTA negotiations with Canada, which had resumed after a five-year break.

An earlier report from a state-funded think tank, the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, said the country's membership in the TPP will increase its gross domestic product (GDP) by 2.6 percent over a 10-year period while its failure to join the regional trade deal may reduce the GDP by 0.1 percent.

Still, many remain skeptical about the benefits of the TPP.

"Already, Japanese automakers are gaining significant competitiveness in the South Korean market as their vehicles produced in the United States benefit from the Korea-U.S. FTA," an official from a local automaker said, asking not be identified.

A trade ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, dismissed the possibility of any serious damage to the local automobile industry from the TPP.

"The automobile industry is already competing with Japanese automakers in every part of the world, including South Korea, and they are not exactly losing," the official said.

The real serious problem may be for local farmers already suffering under the country's nine FTAs with 46 countries.

According to related data, the country posted a trade deficit of US$11.61 billion in the agriculture and fisheries sectors last year with the 12 countries that are currently taking part in the TPP negotiations.

However, Choi, the deputy trade minister, insisted the country's gains from the TPP, especially in the manufacturing sector, will easily offset such a loss.

"Under a bilateral FTA, the country must show and verify that more than half of its product's value originates in South Korea in order to benefit from the FTA. But the TPP will introduce a new concept of cumulative origin, under which just over 50 percent of the product's value needs to originate in any part of the free trade area," he said.

"For a manufacturing company, this will make it so much easier for them to benefit from an FTA. Especially, the automobile and electronic industries, which supply a large portion of their parts from other countries, will be able to meet the rules of origin as long as their parts originate in countries taking part in the TPP," Choi added.

It is technically possible for South Korea to join the TPP after it is concluded by the current members, Choi said.

"In that case, we will have to just accept the agreement. But in case of market opening, we may offer the same level of market access to all the members or different levels for different countries," he said.

The deputy trade minister, however, noted it was still not certain whether the ongoing TPP negotiations allow differential treatment.

"Fundamentally, the United States has welcomed South Korea's interest in joining the TPP. The U.S. position is that South Korea's membership will ultimately be beneficial to all participating countries, including the U.S.," Choi said.

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