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Can Obama, Lee sell lawmakers on US-South Korea free trade deal?

Just as hopes were fading for the US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, negotiators came to terms on prying open the South Korean motor vehicle market to placate angry US carmakers and labor unions.

South Korean Minister of Trade Kim Jong- hoon shows documents during a news conference at the main office building of the ministry in Seoul, Sunday. The United States and South Korea welcomed a free trade deal after a three-year delay which US President Barack Obama said would boost exports to South Korea by $10 billion and support much-needed American jobs.

Newsis/Nam Gang-Ho/Reuters

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The controversial Korea-US Free Trade Agreement faces tough hurdles in both South Korea’s National Assembly and the US Congress now that negotiators have forged a compromise firmly endorsed by the presidents of the United States and South Korea.

Just as hopes were fading for what’s known here by the acronym “KORUS FTA,” negotiators came to terms on prying open the South Korean motor vehicle market, to a carefully limited degree, to placate angry US motor vehicle makers and labor unions.

“I had about given up hope,” says James Rooney, chairman of Market Force, an investing and consulting firm here. “It seemed to me they weren’t going to push it through.”

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With the agreement now ready for ratification, says Mr. Rooney, “both countries have so much to gain by closer industrial cooperation” so “let's get on with it and stop the political nonsense."

A daunting task

That may not be easy. President Obama and South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, face the daunting task of convincing legislators in Washington and Seoul to ratify a deal that proponents say would do away with 95 percent of tariffs in five years and increase US exports to South Korea by $10 billion a year.

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