Protest Delegation Sets off for Washington D.C.

On February 10, a Korean Protest Delegation made up of representatives from workers, farmers, cultural and social movement organizations left Incheon Airport for the United States. at 3:05pm. The group's mission is to protest the Korea-US FTA negotiations, which will go into their 7 th round from Feb. 11 to 14 at the Hyatt Regent in Washington, D.C. This is not the first time that such a group has gone to the U.S. Since the 2nd round of talks were held in D.C. in June of last year, the Korean Alliance against the KorUS FTA, a coalition of over 300 groups in South Korea, has organized protest delegations of this kind to send each time the FTA negotiations are held abroad. Korean delegations have now protested in D.C., Seattle and Montana during the first, third and fifth round of talks. The second, fourth and sixth rounds were held in South Korea.   

This 7th round of talks is especially significant. The negotiators from both countries are racing to reach an agreement in time to submit it to the U.S. Congress before the U.S. president's Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) expires on July 1 st.  TPA authorizes the president to sign an agreement before Congress sees it and then requires that Congress vote it up or down with out amendment.  Because trade legislation must be submitted to Congress at least 90 days in advance of a vote, the Korea-US FTA must be concluded by the end of March to meet the deadline. Although Kim Jong-hoon, chief negotiator for the Korean side as mentioned the possibility of an 8 th round, both sides are hoping to make significant progress, if not conclude a deal this week.

Predicting that large concessions will be made in order get an agreement signed, the Korean protest delegation and American-based organizations are changing their tactics to meet the situation. Besides standard rallies, street demonstrations and vigils, they will hold an overnight tent protest for the entire span of the negotiations. Advocacy work on Capitol Hill is also planned in anticipation that the agreement will be concluded. The protest delegates will throw all their energy into raising awareness about the FTA, which they say is 'unfair trade' that will cost jobs and increase social polarization in both countries, from the streets to the briefing rooms.   

But the protest delegations have had results other than just strengthening FTA-sentiment. The Koreans have also built a strong solidarity with Korean Americans, in particular the national organization Korean Americans against War and Neoliberalism (KAWAN). KoA and KAWAN have now been working together for nine months to carry out the anti-FTA struggle on both sides of the Pacific. In addition, exchanges have occurred and solidarity built with other immigrant, people of color and queer communities and labor organizations in the U.S. who are fighting neoliberalism. "I have a lot of expectations," said Soo-kyung Jang, Executive Director of the Women's Committee of KoA. "Personally I am looking forward to meeting the brothers and sisters I met in Seattle and sharing ideas about solidarity."

Protest will also occur in Seoul, South Korea at the same time as they are going on in D.C. KoA has planned events through the week, including a large rally and prayer protest this Monday, but has been denied permits, even for peaceful demonstrations. In fact, the South Korean government has enforced a ban on all FTA protests since last November, actively seeking to quell anti-FTA sentiment.  Organizers, undaunted, say they will go ahead with their plans and call the government's ban a violation of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.  
Farmers, Livestock Raisers, and Civil Society Groups Protest Beef Import Talks, 13 Arrested

     On the morning of February 8, farmers, livestock raisers and civil society organizations gathered in front of the National Veterinary Research Quarantine Service to protest technical negotiations on U.S. beef imports being held there between representatives from the U.S. and South Korea.
     The negotiations were held as a result of U.S. demands for the full reopening of South Korea's market to U.S. beef.  Korea first shut its doors three years ago after mad cow disease was discovered in the U.S., but agreed allow in boneless meat last year as a precondition to beginning FTA negotiations. Since then, however, three shipments of beef have been turned back after they were found to contain bone fragments. Calling these measures an overreaction, the U.S. beef industry and supportive congressmen have called for technical negotiations to solve the issue, and U.S. chief FTA negotiator Wendy Cutler has stated that Korea's market must be fully opened in order for the FTA to be concluded.  

     Farmers' organizations and civil society groups, however, are against the weakening of Korea's health and sanitation regulations which are meant to protect consumers against mad cow disease. Moreover, they criticized the talks as a forum for American political pressure. The U.S. negotiating team was made up, not of specialists, but of executives from the U.S. beef industry and others representing their interests. 

     Protesters gathered around 9 in the morning on the 8th, before the negotiators arrived. When a car carrying the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry appeared at around 9:20am protesters blocked it with their bodies, stopping it from entering the negotiation site through the front gate. Police arrived soon after and a clash ensued. When protesters again attempted to block the entrance when the negotiators arrived, the police moved swiftly to arrest them. In the evening protesters held a candle light vigil and again tried to block the negotiators van as it left the site.  In all 13 people were arrested, five without detention.   
     The technical talks themselves ended without progress. As critiques had feared the South Korean side conceded to weakening its regulations on beef imports.  However, the U.S. were not satisfied with even this and continued to demand nothing less than full market-opening. The talks are scheduled to open again during the 7th round of FTA negotiations.

The Undemocratic Character of the FTA Negotiations Process

      On February 2, 2006, South Korea and the U.S. announced that they would begin negotiations for a free trade agreement. From the start, however, the negotiation process and the content of the FTA have caused great concerns in labor, agriculture, and civil society sectors in both the U.S. and South Korea. Apart from critiques that the FTA will mean a loss of jobs for farmers and workers and increased social polarization, the manner in which the negotiations have been carried out has sparked rising anger. Indeed, the negotiations have proceeded in a highly undemocratic manner amidst repressive conditions since even before they officially began

Four Preconditions

     Before the start of official FTA negotiations the United States required that South Korea commit to four preliminary measures as preconditions for talks to begin. These included 1) suspension of regulations on pharmaceutical products, 2) easing of government regulations of gas emissions from imported U.S. cars, 3) resumption of U.S. beef imports, and 4) reduction of the quota which requires South Korean cinemas to screen South Korean films from 146 to 73 days per year. While the actual implementation of each of these measures is in different stages, what is of concern here, apart from the United States' unilateral and imposing attitude, is that the South Korean government agreed to them completely without public dialogue, and reported about them deceitfully to the Korean people. For a long time government authorities even denied the possibility that these sensitive issues would be involved in preconditions for FTA negotiations. In a representative case, only two days before the screen quota reduction was announced, Trade Minister Hyun-chong Kim insisted that there was no plan for such a reduction, denying the need for further discussion with representatives of the film industry.

Access to Information and Public Debate

     Lack of disclosure and insufficient public debate have been trends throughout the negotiations, inconsistent not only with democratic spirit but also with South Korean law.  For example, the presidential directive concerning the pursuit of FTAs requires that a public hearing be called before negotiations ensue. Such hearings are meant to be forums for discussion through which the opinions of Korean civilians are taken into consideration. Steps taken to meet this directive were a pure formality: only one public hearing was called for February 2, 2006, just hours before the formal announcement that the US and Korea would begin talks was made. Given that the decision had already been reached, the hearing was obviously not really a space for public discussion. Report that the official announcement would be made the following day drew an angry reaction from the audience, resulting in a suspension of the hearing.  
     Despite South Korean chief negotiator Jong-hoon Kim's promise that greater effort would be made to seek public opinion, no further hearings have occurred. Rather, the government has routinely ignored appeals from stakeholders and citizens who have criticisms of the FTA. In addition, the government has refused to disclose relevant information including the draft of the agreement and the specific results of each round of negotiations. Even National Assembly members have had very limited access: the reports they receive are generally only as detailed as those released to the media, and the time allowed to review these English-language documents is restricted to the same length as that usually allocated for Korean-language materials.
     On top of this, both the U.S. and South Korean governments have gone out of their way to keep much of the talks removed from public view. This began when the 4th round of talks were scheduled to be held on Jaeju Island and continued with the 5th round held at a remote sky resort in Montana.  Following, senior-level meetings held secretly in Hawaii between the 5th and 6th official fueled Korean citizens' distrust for the negotiations process as a whole. Indeed, the secretive and undemocratic manner in which the government is moving forward is one of the important reasons behind opposition to the FTA.

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

     Even more disturbing than the lack of public disclosure is the extent to which the South Korean government has gone to suppress anti-FTA sentiment. This was plainly evident earlier this year, when farmers' and filmmakers' organizations attempted to run a television advertisement entitled, "A Letter from One's Hometown" which included images of farmers expressing their opposition to the FTA. Upon reviewing the ad, the Korean Advertising Review Board (KARB) stipulated that the farmers' comments had to be erased before broadcasting, effectively prohibiting the ad from screening. The KARB made its decision on the basis that the comments gave a "one-sided portrayal of a dispute involving a government agency." Ironically, while "A Letter from One's Hometown" was barred, a $3.8 million government-produced ad aired. It is clear that the ad's main statement??"the Korea-U.S. FTA is a new opportunity for South Korea to leap into the position of a great economic power"??does not capture the full range of public sentiment, which is split roughly in half for and against the FTA. However, as a government production, this ad was not reviewed by the KARB and therefore not required to meet their conditions on objectivity. The contradiction in the two cases has invoked criticisms from citizens groups and specialists in the field, even those within the national Korean Broadcasting Commission, who see the incident an undue closure of public debate at a time when more is needed and an a violation of freedom of expression inconsistent with the standards of a modern democracy.      

     Severe restrictions have also been placed on peaceful protest.  The government routinely deploys thousands of police to contain demonstrations, often violently. Limits have been especially intense since last November, when the government used the excuse of a clash between farmers and police to place a complete ban further protest.  Since then all demonstrations have been outlawed with checkpoints set up on major roads leading to Seoul, to stop regional farmers and workers from entering the capital. The police have issued summons and warrants for over 170 people, raided the local offices of peasant and civil society organizations, made threatening phone calls to demonstration participants, entered their relatives' houses seeking arrest, and detained 21 leaders of farmers and workers organization in an attempt to stop future opposition.  It is plainly evident that the incident on November 22, which was neither wide-spread nor premeditated, does not warrant these extreme measures taken in its wake.

     The excessive imprisonment of civil society leaders and ban on peaceful protest is inconsistent with the rights to freedom of expression and assembly enshrined in both the South Korean and United States constitutions. This was confirmed by the National Human Rights Commission on December 5, which called for all possible measures to be taken to enable peaceful protests to go forward the following day, including the withdrawal of the demonstration ban. Yet, despite this statement, the government and police have continued their efforts to shut down protests and silence opposition. The undemocratic nature of the negotiations process is one testimony to the fact the South Korean government is trying to push through a highly unpopular deal without concern for the interests the Korean people.  

Hyoungseok Hong
Korean Peasant League
Never end struggle!