South Korea's ambassador to the United States expressed skepticism about the prospects for passage of the United States-South Korea Free Trade Agreement.
The deal has faced opposition from Congressional Democrats as well as Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
At the debate with Republican candidate John McCain Oct. 16, Obama singled out the disparity between Korea's exports of 700,000 vehicles to the United States and U.S. exports of 5,000 cars in 2007.
South Korean Ambassador Lee Tae-sik did not mention Obama by name, but said those numbers were a distortion. He pointed out that the 700,000 figure includes 200,000 cars built annually at a Hyundai plant in Alabama. In addition, he said, General Motors owns Korean car maker Daewoo, which has a 12-percent share of the Korean auto market.
Speaking Thursday evening to the National District Export Council Conference, Lee said the FTA would virtually eliminate tariffs on U.S. auto imports. That rate now stands at 8 percent, compared to the U.S. duty rate of 2 percent on Korean auto imports.
Lee cited a study by the U.S. International Trade Commission that estimated the FTA would increase U.S. exports by $10 billion to $12 billion annually. Almost 95 percent of U.S. manufactured goods would become duty-free within three years, he said.
But Lee acknowledged that the agreement is politically "radioactive" on Capitol Hill.
He expressed hope that it could receive approval if Congress holds a lame-duck session after the elections, but acknowledged that the prospects are slim.
Passage by the U.S. Congress is not the only political hurdle the agreement faces; there has also been strong opposition from the Korean legislature.
Lee said the reluctance of lawmakers on both sides to be the first to approve the accord could be overcome if voting on the deal was "synchronized."
Lee said he has sought to press his case with Democratic Congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Asked for their reaction, he said, "They listened."
Like other speakers at the conference, Lee pointed out that the U.S. risks falling behind as other nations form free-trade agreements with each other. Both Canada and the European Union are currently negotiating free-trade deals with Korea, he said.