The US administration is committed to ratifying a sweeping free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday.
"I have come here to express our strong commitment to ratifying the KORUS (Korea-US) FTA by the end of this year," she told the US Chamber of Commerce during a visit to Seoul.
The pact will be "one of my top priorities for the coming months", Clinton said.
The US agreement was signed in 2007 but has yet to be ratified by the two countries' legislatures. The deal is in the "home stretch", Clinton said Saturday.
Her timetable is less ambitious than that of US Trade Representative Ron Kirk. In January he voiced hope the deal would win approval from Congress by July 1, when a similar trade pact between the European Union and South Korea takes effect.
The US-South Korea agreement, which will remove 95 percent of tariffs between the two economies, has been controversial in both countries, with the main US union confederation saying that big businesses would be the main beneficiary.
But President Barack Obama's administration last year won over many holdouts within his camp when South Korea agreed to revisions, including slowing down the elimination of US tariffs on car imports.
However, some Republicans want two other lingering free trade pacts -- with Colombia and Panama -- to be pushed through alongside the Korea deal.
Clinton said the trade pact also sends a strategic message to South Korea, a close US ally where Washington bases 28,500 troops to deter North Korea.
"Korea in many ways has become a global power ... and we want to be your partner," she said.
The United States is looking worldwide for opportunities "to open more markets and unleash the talents of people everywhere to improve their societies and drive economic growth", Clinton said.
Currently US exports to South Korea were worth $38.8 billion a year and already supported about 230,000 American jobs, she said.
"But the truth is, we know we can do more if we can lower the barriers to trade between our countries."
Clinton later met President Lee Myung-Bak before departing for earthquake-stricken Japan.
Lee said both countries should work harder to ratify the trade deal, which would bring "enormous economic and political benefits".
Clinton, according to a statement from the presidential palace, "reassured Lee of President Obama's firm support for the trade pact, saying she would make her utmost efforts for early ratification".