Georgia groups supporting a U.S. free trade agreement with South Korea got a boost Sunday as President Obama pledged to resolve the pact’s outstanding issues by the time he visits Seoul for the next G-20 session in November.

Market access in Korea for U.S. automobiles and beef has been a major political sticking point in the agreement, which was signed in June 2007 but has yet to be approved by either country’s legislature.

Mr. Obama’s remarks ended a long period of silence on specific free trade deals even as he pushed an initiative aimed at doubling U.S. exports over the next five years.

If the issues on the Korea deal can be ironed out at the November summit, Mr. Obama would put the agreement to a vote in Congress in the following months, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Before his remarks at the closing press conference at the G-20 conference in Toronto, he hadn’t set a timeline for legislative action on the Korea deal or similar ones with Colombia and Panama.

There is a “very strong political motivation” for Mr. Obama to push forward on the deal now, Sun-won Park, an expert on U.S.-South Korea relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told GlobalAtlanta.

In a bilateral meeting before the G-20 summit, Mr. Obama agreed with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on a plan to delay by three years the transfer of wartime operational control on the peninsula, or OPCON, from American to South Korean military forces. South Korea was slated to take over in 2012 but sought more time to prepare due to the tense situation with North Korea.

The move could win Mr. Obama some leverage as his team shoots for concessions on cars and beef, Mr. Park said. 

“The South Korean government wants to ratify as soon as possible and the Obama administration wants to revise it to show that there are some big changes from the previous one,” Mr. Park said. “He wants to persuade congressmen who prefer rather a protectionist policy to opening their markets.”

Still, it’s by no means a done deal, even with Mr. Lee’s support. The president’s party suffered widespread defeats in Korea’s recent local elections, so his political coalition will be shaky. 

“Even if they agree basically, the implementation and the real delivery of the agreement looks very difficult,” Mr. Park said.

Last year, as U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk‘s office solicited advice from business leaders on how to improve the FTA, GlobalAtlanta analyzed comments from Georgia companies, organizations and chambers of commerce and reported that they were generally supportive of the FTA. Read more

When Mr. Kirk visited Atlanta in October, he wouldn’t offer a timeline on the FTAs but said the U.S. was committed to seeing them through if they aligned with American ideals on workers’ rights, fair market access and environmental stewardship. Read more

Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc. has backed the Korea deal from the beginning, as it would improve customs clearance times for express packages. The company has said that its export volumes see double-digit growth in countries where the U.S. has FTAs.

“South Korea has the 14th largest economy in the world and the increase in trade that will come from this agreement means more jobs and more global competitiveness for the two countries,” said Scott Davis, chairman and CEO of UPS, in a statement praising Obama’s new effort on the Korea deal. Read more

Studies have suggested that the trade agreement would boost bilateral trade by $10 billion annually.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...