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Stephen Harper heads to South Korea

Prime Minister Stephen Harper departed Sunday for South Korea, widely expected to complete another long round of free-trade negotiations that his critics were denouncing as secretive and potentially bad for Canadian workers.

It wasn't known whether Harper planned to sign the final text of a free-trade deal with South Korea — a laborious, decade-long, on-again, off-again process — or was simply going to announce an agreement-in-principle in a staged photo-op.

That's essentially what occurred last fall when Harper jetted off to Brussels on short notice to mark the end of four years of rocky negotiations with the European Union.

The fanfare of that announcement was not accompanied by a final text, something Harper and the Europeans said would take at least another year and a half.

Harper said on his 24 Seven webcast that this would be Canada's first trade deal in the Asia-Pacific region.

"It adds, obviously, to the important deals we have in the Americas and in Europe now. And it's really given the Canadian economy as good, if not better, free-trade access than virtually every major developed economy," he said.

Harper added that South Korea is "a relatively open economy, a relatively, very progressive economy and advanced democracy, and it has trade linkages all through Asia itself." He said it's "probably the best gateway you can get into long-term trade agreement access into the Asia-Pacific region."

NDP trade critic Don Davies said growing trade with South Korea and Asia in general is a good thing. But he was skeptical that the week's coming ceremonies would amount to much more of a repeat of Brussels.

"Are they going to go just to shake hands, have a photo-op and sign an agreement-in-principle without the actual details or text to be released?"

Davies again assailed the government for a total lack of transparency, and questioned whether the deal would be able to protect jobs in Canada's auto sector.

"In trade deals, it's details that matter," he said.

"The Conservatives have the least transparent trade policy probably in the developed world. They are closed, they are secretive and they don't involve a lot of stakeholders; they don't involve the opposition."

Stuart Trew, a trade expert with the Council of Canadians, said he expects any deal will only widen Canada's trade deficit with Korea.

"If things go the same way as they did for the U.S. in the U.S.-Korea FTA, Canada can expect zero export growth and an increased trade deficit," said Trew.

"Considering how similar U.S. and Canadian exports are, I think it's the most likely situation."

The Canadian Press

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