The United States and South Korea on Thursday concluded negotiations over a recent deal to reopen the Asian nation's market to U.S. beef exports, signaling they were close to a breakthrough.
Seoul is seeking assurances that U.S. exporters will restrict beef shipments, once resumed, to products from cattle less than 30 months old. It hopes this step will quell concerns among South Koreans about mad cow disease.
South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon and U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab discussed technical issues related to the April deal and will maintain contact, a spokeswoman for Schwab said.
"Minister Kim and Ambassador Schwab have concluded talks," USTR spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said a statement. "Since last Friday, they have discussed the technical issues and exchanged views on a path leading to the reopening of the Korean beef market, and help restore Korean consumer confidence in U.S. beef," Hamel said.
"We have made good progress this week and are close to reaching a mutually agreeable path forward. Now both Minister Kim and Ambassador Schwab will need to consult with their governments and stakeholders."
In Seoul, the South Korean Trade Ministry issued a similar statement.
"The talks made considerable progress and reached results that are satisfactory to both sides," it said.
There will not be an announcement of the results until after Kim reports to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the statement said, adding that the trade minister was departing Washington late on Thursday.
Officials had been holding private discussions on the April beef agreement since Kim arrived in Washington last Friday.
The United States has long insisted its beef is safe. It is looking to regain access to several key markets in Asia and rebuild exports crippled by the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States in 2003.
U.S. officials are eager to resume the beef trade so they can move ahead in lobbying Congress to approve a major bilateral trade deal with South Korea.
The beef agreement, along with fears about Lee's economic reform plans, has been a flashpoint in South Korea, fueling protests and a truckers' strike that is costing exporters billions of dollars.