SEOUL -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sunday the Obama administration is determined to pass a free trade pact with South Korea this year and complete the largest such agreement for the United States since her husband was president.
Clinton told American and Korean business leaders that the U.S. and its close ally already have one of the strongest trading relationships in the world, with nearly $88 billion in two-way commerce last year. The $38.8 billion in U.S. exports supported some 230,000 American jobs, she said.
"But the truth is, we know we can do more if we can lower the barriers to trade between our countries," Clinton said, claiming that tariff cuts in the agreement would lead to $11 billion in increased sales of American goods and a sharp jump in Korean economic growth.
On a brief stopover in South Korea to discuss trade and how to get North Korea back to nuclear disarmament talks, Clinton also met Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan on Saturday evening and then Lee Myung-bak early Sunday. Clinton and Lee began by speaking about NATO's commitments in Afghanistan and Libya, and reporters were ushered out of the room before any mention of North Korea.
Earlier, Kim said Clinton's visit would provide a fresh impetus for the trade agreement's ratification. The pact, which slashes tariffs and removes other barriers to commerce, requires approval by Congress and South Korea's National Assembly before it can take effect. It is the biggest deal of its kind for Washington since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1994, when Bill Clinton was president.
"We see our economic relationships with South Korea and other partners across Asia as vital to America's economic renewal," the secretary of state said Sunday, explaining that Asian nations now make up four of the top 10 U.S. trading partners.
She said the U.S.-Korea treaty would protect labor and environment standards, and patents and copyrights to ensure a level playing field. And beyond the economic bottom line, she said it would cement the two nations' long-term partnership.
The two countries worked out a hard-fought compromise in early December altering the original deal, signed in June 2007, because of U.S. complaints that it did not secure enough access for American automakers.
Moves for ratification had also stalled amid changes in government in both countries and the global financial crisis.
"We will be consulting and making the case together to our respective legislatures and I'm very confident that there will be a positive outcome that will benefit both of our countries," Clinton said.
Clinton did not mention North Korea in public remarks before holding talks with Kim or at the business event she attended afterward. But the South Korean foreign minister thanked her for U.S. support in dealing with the North and said he looked forward to "working closely with you in resolving the North Korean nuclear issues."
International efforts to achieve North Korea's denuclearization have stalled and tensions between the two Koreas have spiked, especially since the sinking in March last year of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors and a deadly North Korean attack on a front-line South Korean island in November.
South Korea and the U.S. have blamed North Korea for the ship sinking, although the North has denied involvement.
Clinton is to travel to Tokyo later Sunday to show U.S. support for Japan as it recovers from a major earthquake and tsunami as well as the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl a quarter century ago.
Clinton arrived in South Korea on Saturday after two days of NATO meetings. She assured NATO allies that Washington is prepared to do what it takes to ensure the success of the Libya mission and called on U.S. partners in Europe and elsewhere to boost pressure on Moammar Gadhafi to step down from power.