U.S., South Korea open trade talks

The United States and South Korea launched talks Thursday to forge one of the biggest U.S. free-trade deals ever, with both sides acknowledging that they will face fierce resistance from Korea’s heavily protected farmers.

The initiative was announced at a news conference in the Capitol, where U.S. and Korean trade officials and members of Congress hailed the industrial success story that has made South Korea the world’s 10th-largest economy. It was the United States’ seventh-largest trade partner in 2004.

South Korea strictly limits imports of rice, imposes tariffs of 45 percent to 50 percent on fruit, and maintains stiff barriers on meat. A free-trade agreement with the United States would in theory allow U.S. exports of those products to enter the Korean market unhindered.

Political resistance in the United States to a deal is less of a problem, despite the bitter fight in Congress last summer over CAFTA, the agreement involving Central America and the Dominican Republic. Unlike the CAFTA countries, South Korea is not a low-wage economy with a reputation for abuses of labor rights.

Vienna, Austria

Iran losing support in nuclear dispute

Iran threatened to retaliate Thursday in the face of almost certain referral to the U.N. Security Council for its nuclear activities, and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the dispute was “reaching a critical phase.”

Ahead of a decision by the IAEA’s 35-nation board, U.S. and European delegates turned to behind-the-scenes diplomacy to build the broadest possible support for reporting Iran to the council over concerns it is seeking nuclear weapons.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, in a letter made available to the AP, warned IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei that referral would leave Iran no choice but “to suspend all the voluntary measures and extra cooperation” with the IAEA – shorthand for reducing IAEA monitoring to a minimum.

Cuba, Venezuela, Syria and a few other nations at odds with Washington remained opposed to referral. India was said to be leaning toward supporting referral.

Diplomats accredited to the IAEA meeting said backing for Iran had shrunk among the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s board since Russia and China swung their support behind referral at an overnight meeting with the United States, France and Britain.

Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela expels sailor, warns U.S.

President Hugo Chavez said Thursday that Venezuela is expelling a U.S. Navy officer for allegedly passing secret information from the Venezuelan military to the Pentagon and warned he will throw out all U.S. military attachés if further espionage occurs.

He also accused Navy Cmdr. John Correa of encouraging Venezuelan officers to consider overthrowing his government, which weathered a brief coup in April 2002. The U.S. Embassy denied any of its military attachés had done anything wrong.

Venezuela’s accusations of espionage, which began last week, have heightened tensions in an already rocky relationship between Washington and Chavez’s government. Chavez, whose nation is a major supplier of oil to the United States, is an outspoken critic of U.S. economic policies.


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