Korean and U.S. officials squandered another opportunity to hammer out their differences in a free-trade agreement that has been languishing in diplomatic backwaters since the Bush administration.
Against the backdrop of the G20 economic summit in Seoul last week, U.S. and Korean negotiators spent several days trying to resolve the chief differences involving automotive and beef exports from the United States to South Korea.
Even a face-to-face meeting between President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak failed to generate sufficient momentum.
After the talks fizzled, Lee and Obama said they wanted them to resume soon. But unless there is movement on key issues -- primarily by South Korea -- further discussions seem futile.
Besides being a potential economic boon, getting the free-trade agreement ratified by Congress would be a major political coup for Obama.
Since the pending agreement was signed in June 2007, critics in the United States, including the UAW, have been able to stall ratification. But it's not just labor that objects. Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group also have expressed concerns that the agreement as written would do little to open the South Korean market to vehicles produced in the United States.
The dispute has been simmering since the 1990s, when two bilateral auto trade agreements that were supposed to open South Korea to U.S. producers failed to do so. It will take stronger provisions in the free-trade agreement to open the Korean market.
Last year, U.S. automakers sent about 6,000 vehicles to South Korea. In return, Korea exported more than 500,000 to the United States and is on track for a similar result this year. Even though Hyundai and Kia have U.S. assembly plants, 432,086 of the cars and trucks they sold here in the first 10 months of the year came from Korea.
Typically, Korean officials deny any problem. They say that the Daewoo factory operated by General Motors Co. sells vehicles in Korea and that the free-trade agreement as written eventually would lessen or eliminate tariff and nontariff barriers.
But that's not good enough. If Korea wants to be a trading partner in a global economy, it must negotiate in good faith and open its market.