Prime Minister Stephen Harper took on critics from the Canadian auto sector Tuesday, defending a trade agreement with South Korea — the first trade deal Canada has reached in Asia.

The free trade agreement will, along with dropping other barriers, phase out Canadian tariffs on imports of South Korean cars over three years.

Under the agreement, Canada's 6.1 per cent tariff on imports of South Korean passenger cars would be phased out in three annual cuts — with the first cut coming as soon as the agreement comes into force.

Ontario, whose automotive sector is a key driver of the Canadian economy, would have liked a longer phase-out period, a source close to the negotiations told CBC News on Monday.

Going the other way, South Korea's eight per cent tariff on imports of cars coming from Canada would be eliminated as soon as the agreement was implemented, as well as South Korea's three to eight per cent tariff on imports of automotive parts.

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The agreement is being touted as one that would give Canadians "unprecedented access" to Korea's $1.1-trillion economy and at the same time create "thousands of new jobs" in Canada.

The government hopes to see the agreement implemented "as soon as possible."

Ford supported U.S. deal, Harper says

While Ford Canada said it can't support the deal, Harper said the company already has access to the South Korean market through the U.S. and its free trade deal with South Korea.

"Ford supported the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement …. What we are doing here is allowing other Canadian companies and other Canadian sectors to have the same access that Ford already has," Harper said in Seoul.

"So it is, I don't think, realistic for a company to think it will have one set of rules for it and another set of rules for the entire rest of the Canadian economy, which is why the vast majority of Canadian businesses so strongly supports this deal."

Dianne Craig, the Ford Motor Company of Canada’s president and CEO said in a statement that South Korea “will remain one of the most closed automotive markets in the world” under the new deal. It cites recent agreements between South Korea and both the U.S. and the European Union, which have “failed to reverse this one-sided automotive trade flow.”

Craig says the South Korean government has continued to protect its home market and subsidized its exports through non-tariff barriers and active intervention in its currency.

“No Canadian manufacturer can compete with a market controlled by non-tariff barriers and currency manipulation,” she writes, adding the new agreement does not address these key issues.

A spokesman for Chrysler Canada declined to comment on the deal.

Access for Canadian agricultural products

In the agricultural sector, South Korea would gradually eliminate tariffs on nearly 87 per cent of products coming from Canada. For instance, tariffs on Canadian beef and pork would be gradually eliminated over a period of five to 15 years depending on the product.

Canada would give South Korea immediate duty-free access on nearly 51 per cent of agricultural products, with more tariffs to be eliminated over five years.

The free trade agreement with South Korea would not affect Canada's supply management, which the government says would remain "as robust as ever."

Harper said the deal gives Canadian businesses access "to a booming G20 economy."

"But more than that, and I can't emphasize this enough, the key supply chains that begin in Korea fan out all across Asia," Harper said.

"Let me sum it up this way: much of the world's economic growth over the next generation will be in Asia. With this deal today, we have opened the door to opportunities that will boost Canadian prosperity now and for decades to come."

Cal Dallas, Alberta's minister of international and intergovernmental relations, told The Canadian Press he believes Alberta's interests will be served by the agreement.

"We are comfortable and we are enthusiastic," said Dallas.

"A lot of the work that we've been able to do on the trade side has been in the agricultural sector but it's very clear now there's huge opportunities for energy," he added.

Ontario hesitant

Dallas said that means "attracting inbound investments" and funding ways to "move energy into the South Korean market."

But not everyone is buying into the touted benefits of the new deal.

Ontario's Premier Kathleen Wynne said on Monday, ahead of the announcement, that she optimistic about the agri-food sector provisions, but had reservations about the auto sector.

Ontario had requested Ottawa at least match a U.S. negotiated deal with South Korea. Such a deal would include a so-called snap-back provision by which tariff reductions could be rolled back if it was shown that Seoul was using non tariff barriers to thwart Canadian exports of autos and parts into South Korea. The negotiated deal did not achieve this.

Unifor, Canada’s largest union in the private sector, also expressed concern over the U.S.-South Korea free trade deal and feared Canada entering a free trade agreement with the South.

“We cannot stand by a deal that allows Korean car makers to flood Canada, while doing little or nothing to get our cars into Korea,” Jerry Dias, the union’s national president, said in a statement shortly before details of the agreement were released. “If Korean companies want to sell more in Canada, they should be required to make those cars here.”

With files from The Canadian Press