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Prime Minister Stephen Harper departed Sunday for South Korea (Cchirs Wattie/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper departed Sunday for South Korea (Cchirs Wattie/Reuters)

Harper headed to South Korea in hopes of finalizing free-trade negotiations Add to ...

With parliamentarians on a break week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is heading to South Korea to sew up a landmark free-trade deal – a pillar of the government’s economic strategy that comes after a similar deal with the European Union.

A delegation made up of Mr. Harper, some of his cabinet colleagues and other stakeholders left Canada for South Korea Sunday and are set to arrive Monday evening local time. The government was tight-lipped about the mission’s prospects but all signs point to a deal being in place.

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There are no details available about the terms of the deal, or what concessions Canada agreed to. One major Canadian company, Ford, has warned the deal will hurt Canada’s auto sector by tilting the playing field in favour of Korean manufacturers. The Conservatives say they will address “many” of the auto-sector’s concerns.

“My role isn’t simply to promote the narrow interest of the auto sector itself. My role is to promote the national interest. Virtually every other sector of our economy has told us this trade agreement is absolutely critical,” International Trade Minister Ed Fast told CTV’s Question Period on Sunday, saying he, Mr. Harper and others are “going there with optimism that we’ll be able to conclude negotiations.”

The South Korea deal would be Canada’s only such free-trade agreement in lucrative east Asia – a foothold, of sorts – and Mr. Harper has said signing international trade pacts is a priority of his government. However, details continue to be scarce and aren’t expected to be released during this trip to South Korea, Mr. Harper’s fourth as Prime Minister.

The opposition parties warn the deal will be impossible to assess without knowing details of concessions Canada made in negotiations.

“We support a good trade agreement with South Korea and we support increased trade relations with Asia … on the downside, we have no details and trade deals are all about details,” said Don Davies, the NDP International Trade critic.

Liberal international trade critic Chrystia Freeland also said her party supports trade, in principle. “Having said that, the devil’s in the details and we don’t know them yet. So we’ll wait and see,” she said.

After South Korea struck trade deals with the United States and European Union, Canada’s agriculture exports to South Korea have plummeted, Mr. Fast told CTV, meaning government wants to act quickly. Mr. Fast hopes the deal could be translated and finalized in as little as one year. “This is absolutely critical for Canada’s economic welfare,” he said.

The 6.1-per-cent duty Canada levies on Korean cars has been a stumbling block in talks. Ford president Dianne Craig has said the deal will hurt the auto sector and is therefore “not good for Canadians.” Chrysler initially opposed the deal, but no longer does. General Motors has not taken a position publicly.

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