Clark looks to put Korea in trade bag

By Grant Fleming

SEOUL - Prime Minister Helen Clark has arrived in Korea, with the two countries poised to move one step closer towards free trade negotiations.

Miss Clark will hold talks later today with new Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, with the timing of the start of free trade negotiations at the top of the agenda.

The talks follow hot on the heels of Miss Clark's successful trip to Japan, where she this week won agreement to undertake a study on the benefits of a free trade deal.

New Zealand and Korea have already completed a trade study and Miss Clark said negotiations, which were now a question of "when, not if", would be discussed in tomorrow's talks.

Miss Clark would not give a likely start date for negotiations, but said going by Korea's successful track record with Chile and the United States, once negotiations started they could move quickly.

"Once Korea agrees to negotiate it seems to negotiate fairly studiously towards a conclusion," she told NZPA.

"So I think when we get the 'when' settled, I would expect things to move fairly quickly."

Miss Clark is the first foreign leader to visit Korea since President Lee Myung-Bak's recent inauguration.

Before flying to Seoul, Miss Clark yesterday gave a speech to the inaugural Japan-New Zealand Partnership Forum -- a high level grouping of business and government leaders -- aimed at create a strong pro-New Zealand lobby in Japan.

Miss Clark told delegates that the current world food crisis made it vital for Japan to secure a supply of New Zealand's high quality food.

A free trade deal would achieve that and officials would now develop terms of reference for the study agreed to by Miss Clark and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on Wednesday.

Japan's Economic Foundation chairman Noburu Hatakeyama told delegates the signs were now excellent for a trade deal between the countries, with Japan having so far moved to negotiations with every country it had undertaken a study with.

Miss Clark, who described the study as a "significant breakthrough", said getting a deal would still take time.

"Look, it's not going to be quick or easy, but I think if we look at the time taken with China ... from whoa to go that was the best part of five years, so it's important to put a realistic timeframe like that around this.

"But you never get to the end point if you never take the first step in the journey."

Ahead of her talks with President Lee, Miss Clark will speak to a joint Korea, New Zealand, Australia business function and meet Korea's minister for tourism and culture.

Tomorrow she will visit Korean car maker Hyundai to view their latest electric car prototypes.
(Grant Fleming travelled to Japan and Korea with the assistance of the Asia New Zealand Foundation)

- NZPA

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