President Obama said Wednesday he is committed to resolving issues with South Korea that have stalled a major free trade agreement and “get a deal done.”

This story first appeared in the November 19, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Obama’s comments, in an interview with Fox News during his weeklong trip to Asia, marked the most definitive support he has shown for the deal, which has created divisions between U.S. importers and domestic manufacturers.

Obama arrived in South Korea on Wednesday and was to meet with President Lee Myung-bak today. Obama said the trade deal between the U.S. and South Korea, negotiated by former President George W. Bush and completed in April 2007 but stalled in Congress, will benefit U.S. exporters.

Year-to-date imports of textiles and apparel from South Korea have fallen 14.2 percent to 1.1 billion square meter equivalents, according to the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel. In dollar value, imports of textiles and apparel have fallen 30.3 percent to $603 million year-to-date.

The trade pact has a strict rule of origin and would lower duties on some apparel and textile products made of materials from either of the two countries.

“South Korea is not only an apparel producer but they are a significant producer of what might be defined as industrial or technical textiles, which is a significant concern,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, which opposes the trade deal. “It is possible that Chinese goods will be transshipped duty free through Korea and that is very troubling from our perspective.”

Julia Hughes, senior vice president at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, said South Korea has an active textile industry and a viable apparel industry, which offers a lot of opportunities for companies to use the country’s textiles and products.

“While we wish the provisions in the South Korean FTA were more liberal than they are, we still are supportive of this agreement because of the decades-long commercial relationships between U.S. and Korean companies,” Hughes said.

Obama acknowledged in the interview there is some question whether the trade deal, which would be the largest for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, can be passed by Congress and enacted in 2010.

“There are still some details that need to be worked out,” he said.

The free trade agreement has stalled for more than two years because of opposition from Democrats over South Korea’s barriers to U.S. beef and auto exports.

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