Obama pledges to allay concerns of auto lobby image

President Barack Obama said he is committed to pushing through a free trade agreement with South Korea that has been stalled by the U.S. auto lobby and unions, who argue it doesn’t do enough to open up Korean markets.

Obama’s joint press conference in Seoul today with South Korean counterpart Lee Myung Bak was a last chance on his four- nation Asia trip to show he opposes protectionism. The accord has been held up in Congress, where lawmakers are demanding wider access for Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. Lee said today he is willing to reopen talks on the auto industry.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that failure to enact the accord means the loss of $35 billion in exports and 345,000 jobs. South Korea signed a rival agreement with the European Union last month that calls for 99 percent of commerce to be duty-free within five years.

“Team Obama talked the talk, now we’ll see if they walk the walk,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “Possibly in Seoul the president will achieve another breakthrough” with a commitment to seek ratification of the U.S.-South Korea pact.

U.S. automakers sold 6,980 vehicles in South Korea last year, or 0.72 percent of the overall passenger car market, according to the Korea Automobile Importers & Distributors Association. Those figures exclude GM’s local Daewoo unit, which captured 7 percent of the market in the first nine months of this year.

Hyundai Motor Co., Korea’s biggest carmaker, accounted for almost half of all sales. Through October this year, Hyundai raised its U.S. sales 4.1 percent to 373,222 vehicles. The collective U.S. market share for Hyundai and its Kia Motors Corp. affiliate was 7.3 percent in October.