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Ratification of US, S. Korean Free Trade Deal No Sure Thing


U.S. President George Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun signed a wide-ranging trade liberalization agreement Saturday. Legislators in both countries will need to vote on whether to ratify the treaty. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, passage is not a sure thing.

For some Koreans, the pending free trade agreement is a mouthwatering prospect.

Supporters say South Korean food consumers may benefit the most. Increased imports of U.S. agricultural products are expected to push down prices and expand selection.

The deal also is expected to create high-salary jobs in South Korea's knowledge-intensive industries.

But the agreement faces opposition both in the U.S. Congress, and here, in South Korea's National Assembly.

Tami Overby is president* of the American Chamber of Commerce in South Korea. She rides a U.S.-made Harley Davidson motorcycle. She says the trade deal will make it easier for South Koreans to buy Harleys, but she says the big picture is much more important.

"The changes that this FTA [free trade agreement] will help [South] Korea, will ensure [South] Korea's future competitiveness. This FTA will help ensure that they have preferential access into the largest market in the world," she adds.

Many people disagree. Lawmaker Shim Sang Jong, of South Korea's Democratic Labor Party, heads a legislative movement to block the deal. "This is a very imbalanced agreement, and will bring about a lot of despair for common people, laborers, and farmers. As more people understand that fact, lawmakers will lose their will to ratify it."

Shin Yong-beom farms rice and other produce about 200 kilometers south of Seoul. He has taken part in many demonstrations against the deal in South Korea. He says it will unfairly make small South Korean farms compete with big U.S. farms run by companies.

"What the government calls competition with U.S. farmers is actually competition with multinational corporations,” he says. “That's not a fair arrangement."

A different kind of opposition to the deal is emerging in the United States. U.S. carmakers Ford and Chrysler say it does not give them the access they want to South Korea's market. Many U.S. lawmakers say they oppose the deal.

At Seoul National University, Lee Dong Kee is a professor of business administration. He says some South Koreans do not understand how dependent their economy is on global trade.

"We had the financial crisis [in 1997-98] because South Korea's economy wasn't able to adapt to the changing world economy. Now, 10 years later, we are at another historical moment when we should make a new leap to an open and global economic system," says the professor.

Experts such as Lee say the South Korea-U.S. trade agreement symbolizes a commitment to making that leap -- and lays the foundation for similar deals with China, the European Union, and elsewhere.

* - This report initially incorrectly identified Ms. Overby as executive director.

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