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US announces plans to renegotiate free trade deal with South Korea

The Trump administration has said it is seeking talks with South Korea to overhaul a five-year-old free trade agreement. Seoul has said the talks with Washington do not necessarily mean the deal will be renegotiated.

The United States notified South Korea on Wednesday that it plans to renegotiate its free-trade agreement with Seoul and called for a meeting to be held next month.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said that Washington wants to meet to discuss "possible amendments and modifications" to the deal in a letter to South Korean Trade Minister Joo Hyung-hwan.

The terms of the US-Korea Trade Agreement (KORUS) - which went into effect five years ago under President Barack Obama - call for the talks to begin within 30 days, although no date has been set yet.

"Since KORUS went into effect, our trade deficit in goods with Korea has doubled from $13.2 billion (11.6 billion euros) to $27.6 billion, while US goods exports have actually gone down," Lighthizer said in a statement.

"This is quite different from what the previous administration sold to the American people when it urged approval of this agreement. We can and must do better," he said.

The move reflects US President Donald Trump's protectionist criticism of past trade deals and his vow to put "America First."

South Korea: No agreement on renegotiation

A South Korean trade official confirmed to Reuters news agency on Thursday that the proposed joint committee will meet either in Seoul or Washington, but the talks don't necessarily mean that South Korea will renegotiate the deal.

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"We will meet and discuss mutual interests and concerns. Our stance is that we have not agreed on renegotiation of the deal," Yeo Han-koo of South Korea's trade ministry told Reuters.

He added that South Korea continues to believe that the deal benefits both countries and that it first needs to be established whether the US trade deficit with Seoul is due to the deal or is a result of other economic issues.

During an early July meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump said he wanted to renegotiate what he called a "rough" trade deal between the two countries.

Digging in heels on trade

The Trump administration blames the trade gap on barriers to US exports, particularly within the auto market. Other analysts cite South Korea's sluggish economy as a reason for the deficit and note that other countries have seen their exports to South Korea drop even more.

Trump has opposed multilateral agreements and frequently lashes out at countries that have large trade surpluses with the US. He has already begun an effort to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

rs/gsw (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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