Urgency is growing for Congress to ratify a pending free trade deal with South Korea as Canada, Australia and the European Union forge their own agreements with the Asian nation, South Korea's ambassador to the U.S. said Wednesday.
Ambassador Han Duk-soo has been touring the U.S. promoting the American agreement, which was reached in 2007 but still must be ratified by legislatures in both countries.
The pact would phase out several tariffs, including a 40 percent tariff on U.S. beef. South Korea is the fifth largest market for U.S. agriculture products, importing about $5 billion last year.
"Agriculture will be one of the best beneficiaries of the Korea-U.S. agreement," Han said Wednesday at events with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar. "It's urgent for us to implement this agreement as soon as possible."
Colombia and Panama also have pending free trade treaties that Udall said he hopes reach Congress within 60 days. Some in Congress have said they want to be presented with all three pending agreements before acting on one.
Udall said he hoped that wouldn't be "a make or break element" in approving a deal with South Korea, whose $1 trillion economy is in the top 15 in the world.
Udall said he is inclined to support the agreement. It also has support from South Korea's president, whose party holds a majority in the National Assembly.
Obama's administration has estimated the Korea agreement could add at least $10 billion to the annual U.S. gross domestic product and support 70,000 jobs, including more than 6,000 in Colorado.
Han said the pact is important economically and strategically. South Korea has supported the U.S. in hot spots including Afghanistan and needs U.S. cooperation in deterring aggression by North Korea, he said.
"It's crucially important for strengthening the already strong relationship between the U.S. and Korea. It's not just jobs, not just money. It's something more than this," he said.
Ratification of the deal had been held up by opposition to restrictions on U.S. autos, but a compromise reached last year eased those restrictions. That compromise didn't address concerns about making sure Korea is open to cattle of all ages, but the Colorado Cattlemen's Association nevertheless supports the deal.
Salazar said it would help meet Gov. John Hickenlooper's goal to expand Colorado exports 40 percent over the next four years. Korea is Colorado's fourth largest export market, he said.
South Korea is the eighth largest buyer of Colorado hard red winter wheat, importing an average of 1.37 million bushels each year, according to the Colorado Association of Wheat Growers.
Canada has finished approving its own free trade deal with Colombia. "We can't let them beat us to the punch on Korea as well," Colorado Association of Wheat Growers President Chris Tallman said.
As Korea's economy grows, its people will want better housing, better food, and entertainment — and perhaps more vacations to Colorado for skiing, Han quipped.
Brett Rutledge, a pork producer in Yuma, said he's looking forward to improved hog prices that he expects to see if trade deals with Panama, Colombia and Korea are approved. "Korea by far is the prize," Rutledge said.