The US and South Korea have failed to reach a promised agreement to finalise a high-profile bilateral trade pact, disappointing hopes that the summit of the Group of 20 richest nations in Seoul would deliver anything but a rhetorical commitment to liberalising trade.

Following days of intense talks between US and Korean trade officials, President Barack Obama and President Lee Myung-Bak on Thursday admitted they would not reach the target of resolving outstanding problems by the target date of Friday’s G20 meeting.

Mr Obama said he wanted the deal finished within weeks rather than months, but the setback casts doubt over whether he can push ahead with trade liberalisation, a programme which critics say has largely languished in the US since his election.

“If we rush something that can’t garner popular support that’s going to be a problem,” Mr Obama said on Thursday. “We think we can make the case, but we want to make sure that case is air tight.”

The pact, signed but not ratified in 2007, has provoked narrow but determined opposition from within the US car industry, jeopardising its chances of passing through the US Congress. Ford and Chrysler, backed by the Union of Automobile Workers, argue that the deal gives them insufficient access to the Korean market.

US beef producers have also complained about their inability to sell into Korea, though complaints have moderated as American farmers have taken a less confrontational tack. Mr Lee defended Seoul’s trade policy against charges of unfairness, saying that the US bilateral deficit with Korea was shrinking.

Having languished since Mr Obama took office in January 2009, the prospects for the deal were suddenly revived at the previous G20 leaders summit, in Toronto this June, and a deadline of the Seoul summit was set. But US and Korean officials failed to broker a deal despitean intense series of late-night negotiations.

Seoul has insisted that the agreement itself must remain untouched, and attention has focused on how to reassure US carmakers that the spirit of the pact will be adhered to. But the issues are complex and technical, involving the use of fuel and emission standards that the US says act as a form of protectionism, making a binding agreement difficult.

A pact would face an uncertain fate in the newly elected US Congress, where Republicans took back the House of Representatives in the recent midterm elections. Republicans tend to be more supportive of trade deals than Democrats, but the situation is complicated by the election of many Tea Party Republican candidates whose rhetoric is often isolationist.

A joint statement by Sander Levin and Dave Camp, respectively outgoing and incoming chairmen of the House ways and means committee, which sets trade policy, said the administration was right to hold out for a better deal. “It was essential for our government today to deliver a strong message by insisting on a two-way street for trade with South Korea,” they said.

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