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South Korea’s Lee Sees ‘Good, Decent Jobs’ From U.S. Trade Deal

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told U.S. business leaders today that the pending trade treaty between the two countries will create “good, decent jobs” that will help spur both economies.

“I know it will create jobs,” Lee told a few hundred invited guests in Washington at a luncheon sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S.-Korea Business Council. “It’s going to be beneficial to workers, to small businesses” and to consumers, he said.

U.S. trade accords with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, reached under former President George W. Bush and revised by the Obama administration, are awaiting approval in Congress today after being held up in a stalemate with Republicans over aid for workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition.

The South Korea deal, the biggest since the North American Free Trade Agreement, would boost U.S. exports by as much as $10.9 billion in its first year when fully implemented, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

White House Chief of Staff William Daley has urged lawmakers to finish work on the agreement this week and renew aid for workers hurt by foreign competition, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, calling the measures an “essential piece of the president’s jobs agenda.”

While the trade agreement was reached more than four years ago, it was delayed as lawmakers complained about South Korean barriers to U.S. exports of cars and beef.

Chamber Versus Labor

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama will prevent the loss of 380,000 jobs. The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, claims the opposite, saying the accords will destroy 159,000 jobs by encouraging companies to send work overseas.

Lee rejected that argument today, predicting critics of the trade deal will soon have a change of heart.

“After a year, many critics will realize they are wrong,” Lee said. “I’m confident we will prove them wrong.”

At a time of economic crisis in Europe and fiscal stress around the world, Lee said, “Protectionism is not the answer. When you are faced with a challenge of this magnitude, you have to open your economy and promote free trade.”

President Barack Obama has pledged to double U.S. exports by 2015.

“If Americans can buy Kias and Hyundais, I want to see folks in South Korea driving Fords and Chevys and Chryslers,” Obama said in a speech to Congress on Sept. 8.

Detroit Visit

Lee appeared before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during an official state visit that includes a dinner at the White House tomorrow night. Lee and Obama will also visit the Detroit area on Oct. 14 to promote the new trade deal.

“When Americans see the benefit of this agreement in the United States, we will have our very patient friends in Korea to thank,” said U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who spoke at the luncheon.

“We are finally at what looks like the end of a very long journey,” said William Rhodes, chairman of the U.S.-Korea Business Council.

After years of stalemate, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said he will consider a worker assistance package in tandem with the trade deal, clearing the way for approval. Obama submitted legislation required for the deal on Oct. 3.

Tom Donohue, president of the Chamber of Commerce, praised Lee for supporting a free-trade accord “at a time when some people fear trade as a part of the problem.”

Addressing Lee, Donohue said, “You have shown incredible patience while America finally got its act together.”

With the trade deal now nearing enactment, Lee said, “It is up to you to create jobs and to increase investments. When you do that, we will be making a tremendous contribution to the betterment of the global economy.”

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