Lee, Obama celebrate FTA ratification at joint dinner

WASHINGTON, Oct. 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama celebrated the Congressional ratification of a free trade agreement between the two countries Wednesday while dining together at a Korean restaurant in Washington, an official said.

Lee and Obama were dining with their foreign ministers and other top aides at Woo Lae Oak restaurant in Washington when the news broke that Congress had given final approval to the landmark trade pact expected to bring the two traditional allies closer together.

After learning the news through a message on his BlackBerry phone, Obama shared it with Lee, saying the agreement passed with overwhelming support, and offered congratulations, according to South Korean presidential spokesman Park Jeong-ha.

Lee said in response that Obama's leadership "shined" in the passage, Park said.

The two leaders and accompanying officials applauded to celebrate the ratification, he said. Other participants at the dinner included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan.

Lee arrived in Washington on Tuesday for a state visit that includes summit talks with U.S. President Barack Obama and an address to a joint Congressional session, both of them scheduled for Thursday. The five-day trip is largely celebratory of the Congressional ratification of the trade pact.

The deal, first signed in 2007 and then modified last year, calls for tearing down or reducing tariffs and other barriers to the exchange of goods and services. Officials have stressed the accord is not simply an economic deal, but will also have far-reaching impacts on the overall relations between the traditional allies.

According to South Korean government data, the free-trade accord with the U.S. is expected to increase South Korea's gross domestic product by 7.2 percent to US$32.6 billion over the next seven to 10 years, while contributing to creating an additional 520,000 jobs.

South Korea, a resource-scarce nation that relies mainly on exports for economic growth, has been aggressively seeking free-trade accords with foreign countries to expand what Lee dubs the country's "economic territory."

Besides the agreement with the U.S., the fourth-largest Asian economy has seven FTAs already in effect, including those with the European Union and India, and is in negotiation with seven other nations, such as Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.

The U.S. ratification is expected to put pressure on South Korea's National Assembly to follow suit. The deal, which now stands at a parliamentary trade committee, has been one of the most contentious issues in parliament amid opposition objections.

The main opposition Democratic Party claims the deal favors the U.S. and should be renegotiated.

Earlier in the day, Lee held a lunch meeting with major American firm CEOs and promoted the benefits of trade accord, saying the historic deal will bolster their alliance and create many jobs.

"We are facing a significant watershed since the 1953 military alliance" between the two countries, Lee said in a speech at a meeting with American business leaders hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, stressing that the pact will greatly bolster the relations between the two countries in many aspects.

Lee said that the trade agreement will be beneficial not only for big companies, but also for working-class people, small business owners and "those who have lost jobs and are looking for ones."

"There are people opposed to this (agreement) over concern that they could lose jobs. I am confident that in a year or two following the ratification, we can show that we were right" that the pact contributes to job creation, he said,

American participants in Wednesday's lunch meeting included U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue, Gale International Chairman Stan Gale and Cargill CEO Joe Stone.

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