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Free Trade Talks With US Face Strong Pockets of Domestic Opposition in South Korea

  • Kurt Achin

South Korea and the United States begin negotiations in June on a free trade agreement. South Korean leaders, however, face pockets of strong domestic pressure to protect certain industries. The country is experiencing a conflict between its identity as a trade giant and its desire to shield local producers from economic pain.

Angry South Korean farmers shout as police open up fire hoses on protesters trying to breach their lines. This recent protest, against the gradual opening of South Korean consumer markets to imported rice, was one of many similar demonstrations held in the past year.

South Korea exported more than $284 billion worth of goods and services to world markets in 2005 - nearly $44 billion of that to the United States.

The Korea International Trade Association says exports accounted for 70 percent of the country's economic growth. According to the World Bank, the country ran a trade surplus of about $23 billion last year with the rest of the world.

U.S. and South Korean leaders say a free trade agreement, or FTA, between the two countries would create more high-end jobs and export opportunities for both. It would also give American companies the kind of access to South Korean markets that Korean companies have enjoyed for decades in the United States.

Much of the agreement is likely to cover regulations that allow South Korea to keep many imports out of the country. In addition, tariffs and quotas are likely to be discussed. U.S. negotiators say the two countries should reach a deal by next March, with the goal of having it approved in Congress by July 2007.

While negotiators consider the fine points of a trade deal, South Korean farmers draw a distinction between their country's exports, its giant companies and their own lives.

This farmer attending a protest complains he is not Samsung Corporation - he is just a person trying to survive as previous generations of his family have.

Many Korean farmers view the FTA as an attack on their culture and lifestyle - they fear that imports of cheaper U.S. foods will put them out of business. For similar reasons, South Korea film professionals also oppose the agreement.

Movie actors and production workers held their own protest recently, to condemn a cut in the domestic film quota for theaters. Celebrities and filmmakers warn that if theaters are not required to show South Korean films a certain number of days, competition from Hollywood will swamp the local industry.

A film director, who prefers not to be identified, says the drop in the screen quota is like being invaded by the United States.

Much of the recent anti-FTA rhetoric has had a similar alarmist tone. A former presidential secretary recently compared the FTA to the treaty that gave Japan control of Korea in 1905. A former agriculture minister complained the agreement would turn South Korea into the "51st U.S. state."

Tami Overby, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, says she thinks the South Korean media are helping generate a sense of alarm.

"They seem quite convinced that the U.S. is going to steamroll over Korea in these negotiations, and I believe that's absolutely false. I think people are misjudging the Korean government's preparedness on this," she said.

Overby says she hopes the FTA helps eliminate some of the "non-transparent" trade barriers, which make it hard for foreign companies to operate in South Korea. Those often take the form of pages of regulations specific to South Korea, making it difficult for car manufacturers and other exporters to enter the market here.

Although opposition to a trade deal is organized and vocal, there is considerable support for it within the South Korean business community. The head of the Korea International Trade Association, which represents 80,000 companies, recently compared a successful FTA with moving a boat into a larger ocean, allowing Korean companies to catch bigger fish in the U.S. market.

The best harbinger for the success of the FTA talks is the support of President Roh Moo-hyun, who says the agreement is crucial to the country's future.

Even among the FTA's most stalwart opponents, there is a tacit awareness that globalization and other factors are unavoidably changing South Korea's economy. For instance, farmers find their children are not interested in the hard physical work of the fields, and many young men who want to farm find that few South Korean women are interested in marrying them.

Hong Joon-keun, secretary-general of the Korea Farmer's Cooperation Council Association, says he would not urge his children to become farmers.

Hong says there is no benefit in farming for them, with the changes that the Free Trade Agreement will bring. He adds that most of South Korea's rural farmers are now in their 60s. They, like their industry itself, may not have much time left.

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