South Korea and U.S. Reach Trade Deal at the Last Minute

With just minutes to spare on Monday, the United States and South Korea agreed the biggest U.S. trade pact for 15 years, officials said.

"Yes, it has been reached," a press official at the South Korean presidential Blue House told Reuters, although further details were not immediately available.

The deal comes after nine months of negotiations between the United States and Asia's third largest economy, but just minutes before time ran out for the White House to use legislation allowing it to present a deal to Congress that can be rejected or accepted, but not changed.

Some estimates say an agreement could add $20 billion to the already more than $70 billion of two-way trade each year.

Much of the final bargaining focused on whether the parties could concede enough to each other on farm goods and autos.

The agreement had to be with Congress by the end of Sunday Washington time if it was to meet the 90-day required notice period. If they had missed that, talks would likely have dragged on for years.

Contentious Issues

South Korean officials have said the most contentious issues were agriculture, including beef and oranges, and autos.

Both sides wanted the other to lower tariff and other barriers to auto imports. The United States demanded that South Korea -- whose consumers pay some of the world's highest prices for their food -- opened its tightly protected farm market to American beef imports.

Negotiators had seemed on the verge of signing a deal after Presidents George W. Bush and Roh Moo Hyun agreed last week to instruct their negotiators to be as flexible as possible.

Months of talks had been overshadowed by large and sometimes violent protests in South Korea, mostly over fears that its heavily subsidized farmers could not survive a flood of cheaper U.S. farm products.

South Korean farmers say opening their market would cost them billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs.

On automobiles, officials said Washington's demands to change South Korea's tax structure to remove discrimination against American cars would have a much wider impact and could cost the government billions of dollars in lost revenue.

The United States also wanted greater access to South Korea's lucrative financial services, including insurance.

Seoul pressed Washington to change anti-dumping laws it says are unfairly applied to its products. It also wanted lower U.S. tariffs on its auto exports there.