SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Tuesday vowed to defend his country's national interests as tough free trade talks with the United States head for conclusion later this month.
South Korea ''will sign a deal if it serves (our) interests but it will not sign one if it doesn't,'' Roh told a Cabinet meeting in remarks broadcast on YTN television, a 24-hour news channel.
Roh, an ardent supporter of South Korea's effort to reach a deal to slash tariffs and other barriers with the U.S., its third-largest trading partner, made the comments a day after the two sides reported significant progress after months of stalemate.
Chief negotiators said Monday that they are on the verge of concluding an agreement, but need a few more weeks to overcome hard-to-bridge gaps in sensitive areas including automobiles and agriculture.
South Korea and the U.S. do more than $70 billion (euro53 billion) in trade a year. South Korea, the world's 10th-largest economy, is Washington's seventh-biggest trading partner.
The two governments say a deal would boost economic growth and trade. Opponents, including labor, farm and citizens' groups, counter that it will harm livelihoods.
Street protests in South Korea have dogged the negotiations since they began in June in Washington.
Several thousand people rallied Saturday. Riot police broke up one protest of about 2,000 workers, farmers and students in downtown Seoul, detaining 10 people.
Negotiators face an end-of-month deadline dictated by the approaching end of President George W. Bush's Trade Promotion Authority, which allows him to send agreements to Congress for straight yes-or-no votes without amendments.
It expires on July 1, but various associated legal requirements mean an agreement must be completed 90 days before, in this case by the end of March.
If successful, the deal would be the biggest such accord for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.
Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler and veteran South Korean trade diplomat Ambassador Kim Jong-hoon, the chief negotiators, plan to meet again next week in Washington.
Contentious issues _ including autos, textiles and U.S. antidumping measures _ await resolution as the clock ticks toward March 31.
Agriculture is another tough sector.
South Korea wants to exclude its rice market from any deal. The two sides are also at odds over American beef, absent from South Korean markets for over three years after mad cow disease was discovered in the United States.
The eighth round of talks, held in Seoul for five days through Monday, yielded agreements in competition policy, customs administration and government procurement.