Final moves and posturing to make the March 30 deadline for forging a free-trade agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and South Korea were frenetic on Thursday, with even the heads of state wading into the fray. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and President George W. Bush talked via telephone for 20 minutes on Thursday and exchanged their views on the remaining obstacles, including automobiles, agriculture and textiles, reports the Korea Herald.

"The two leaders agreed to instruct their respective governments' FTA negotiators to be maximally flexible," said Roh's spokesman Yoon Seung-yong.

On Wednesday, Bush urged Japan and South Korea to reopen their markets fully to U.S. beef and said opening markets to American beef is a part of U.S. foreign policy. In remarks before Capitol Hill-visiting members of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association on Wednesday, Bush said Congress needs to pass a number of pending trade deals and reauthorize his Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which expires July 1. TPA allows the administration to negotiate trade deals with only an up or down vote by Congress.

"Every time we break down a barrier to trade, someone who's raising a cow will have an opportunity to sell that cow into a better market," Bush said. "My attitude on trade is 'you treat us the way we treat you -- and then let's compete.' "

Meanwhile, in reference to the pending FTA, South Korea's Roh suggested his willingness to give up one or two things to help conclude the trade negotiations with the U.S., saying "a deal is supposed to be mutually satisfactory. Otherwise, the deal can't be concluded," the Korea Herald reports.

He says agriculture is by far the most difficult of all remaining issues, which also include automobiles, textiles, anti-dumping remedies and pharmaceuticals.

Regarding U.S. beef, the U.S. requested on Tuesday a "written timeframe" by this weekend for fully reopening its market to U.S. beef. South Korea rejected the U.S. demand, saying it couldn't do so ahead of the World Organization for Animal Health's (OIE) final report on health risks of U.S. beef expected in May.

South Korean sources told the Korea Herald that South Korea will probably be able to protect its politically sensitive rice market in the deal in exchange for opening its beef market wider to U.S. imports.
-- Joe Roybal