U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke will lead a bipartisan congressional delegation to Seoul next week to build support for the ratification of the pending free trade deal with South Korea, the Commerce Department said Friday.
During the three-day visit from Wednesday, the delegation will meet with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and other officials to "discuss the benefits of KORUS for both the U.S. and Korea," the statement said, referring to the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
The visit comes as the Obama administration prepares to present the Korea FTA to Congress for deliberation. Some congressional Republicans threaten to block President Obama's nomination for Locke's replacement unless Obama sends to Congress the Korea FTA together with similar deals with Colombia and Panama. Locke has been appointed U.S. ambassador to China.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk expressed hope Wednesday that Congress will begin deliberating the Korea FTA early next month when the Easter recess ends. He has said the Korea FTA will be sent to Congress separately from deals with Panama and Colombia.
Kirk has urged Congress to approve the Korea deal "this spring" so as not to lag behind the EU, which ratified a similar deal with Seoul set to take effect on July 1.
The delegation will visit the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas to "reaffirm U.S. commitment to Korea as a critical ally in the region and underscore KORUS as key to bolstering the economic pillar of the United States' strategic partnership with Korea," the statement said. "The delegation will also have lunch with U.S. troops and their families to show appreciation for their service and sacrifice."
Also on the itinerary are a meeting with a group of South Korean university students to "talk about the impact that young Korean leaders can make to strengthen the future of U.S.-Korea economic relations" and a visit to Pantech, a South Korean mobile phone manufacturer, which, with the Korea FTA's implementation," is expected to quadruple its purchase of U.S. products" from Qualcomm, Corning Inc. and other U.S. firms to $2 billion annually by 2015, the statement said.
The delegation consists of five members of the House of Representatives, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY), Rep. David Reichert (R-WA) and Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI).
"On this fact-finding mission, these congressional members, four of whom sit on the House Ways and Means Committee that has jurisdiction over trade agreements, will have an opportunity to witness how KORUS will support job creation here at home and spur economic growth in both the U.S. and Korea," the department said.
"The trip will help the members effectively communicate the value and importance of KORUS to their congressional colleagues and the American public."
U.S. President Barack Obama has said the Korea FTA will support more than 70,000 jobs and help double U.S. exports within five years as the world's biggest economy struggles to escape the recession that began in late 2008, the worst in decades.
The International Trade Commission has estimated that the Korea FTA would annually add 10 to $12 billion to the U.S. GDP and roughly $10 billion to U.S. exports to Korea.