Harper focuses on economic issues

Rebounding labour markets are not sufficient for governments to start applying the brakes on stimulus programs, Stephen Harper will be telling his Group of 20 summit co-chair during a meeting Monday.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands in North Korea as a North Korean soldier stands guard at the Demilitarized Zone on the border of North and South Korea at Panmunjom today.

SEOUL, South Korea — Rebounding labour markets are not sufficient for governments to start applying the brakes on stimulus programs, Stephen Harper will be telling his Group of 20 summit co-chair during a meeting Monday.

The prime minister’s talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will focus on preparations for next year’s G20 summit of leading economies.

The main item on the agenda is exit strategies from massive stimulus packages.

Seoul is the last stop on Harper’s sometimes rocky six-day Asian tour through Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and was added to the schedule partly because the two countries are hosting next year’s summit.

A senior government official says Harper is concerned that many countries are getting ahead of economic reality and may act too soon in withdrawing stimulus, particularly with China booming, Europe recovering and signs of growth building in the United States and Canada.

The latest signs of building momentum came Friday when both Canada and the U.S. posted far better-than-expected employment numbers for November. Canada added a whopping 79,000 jobs.

A Harper aide sent emails to all reporters accompanying the prime minister minutes after Statistics Canada posted the news.

But the official, who spoke on background in transit to Seoul, says Harper will press on Lee that governments should only plan exit strategies, not begin them.

The message is that governments need to “finish the job” by implementing the stimulus measures they have promised before putting on the brakes, which if done too fast or too hard, could push many economies back into a tailspin.

Harper did not make himself available to reporters Sunday, which he spent meeting local officials in Hong Kong and participating in an emotional memorial service for the Canadian soldiers who died defending the island in 1941.

The theme of the service — that Canadians gave their lives to bring freedom to the Asian continent — was repeated Monday at a similar service here commemorating the more than 500 killed during the Korean conflict.

Harper visited the demilitarized zone separating the prosperous and democratic South Korea from the impoverished and totalitarian North to drive home the point.

“Just as during the Korean War, Canada is firmly committed to supporting freedom, peace and stability in Northeast Asia,” Harper is quoted in a news release.

“We will continue to support all avenues to reach a peaceful resolution to this tragic legacy and bring about improvements to the lives of those suffering under the oppression of the North Korean regime.”

But the official said the prime minister won’t be repeating the trade breakthroughs, albeit modest, he came away with from China and the special administrative region of Hong Kong.

On Sunday, the government said Hong Kong had dropped its six-year ban on most beef imports from Canada, a potential $60-million a year benefit to Canadian beef producers.

As well, China dropped its blockage of pork imports and granted Canada “approved destination status” during the trip, a potential $100-million boost to the Canadian tourist trade.

Ottawa has taken South Korea to the World Trade Organization over its ban on Canadian beef, imposed after an Alberta cow was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy in 2003.

The official also said the two sides remain too far apart on the comprehensive trade deal they have been negotiating for several years for a breakthrough to occur Monday.

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