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The US-Korea free trade agreement (or KORUS FTA, as called in Korea) has been one of the most controversial since NAFTA, if one could measure in terms of social mobilisation. Millions of people have fought against this deal, taking to the streets and flying across the Pacific to try to defeat it.

Washington and Seoul talked about a possible free trade agreement for several years before anything got started. As it turns out, the US had four preliminary demands for the Korean government to fulfil before any FTA talks could start. The four prerequisites were:

 suspending regulations on pharmaceutical product prices so US drug firms could get a better deal in the Korean market (secured in October 2005)
 easing government regulations on gas emissions in imported US cars so that more American cars could be sold in Korea (secured in November 2005)
 resuming importation of US beef, which were stopped in 2003 because of mad cow disease in the US (agreed in January 2006) and
 reducing South Korea’s compulsory film quota for cinemas from 146 days per year to 73 days so that more American films could be shown (agreed in January 2006).

Once the Roh administration caved in to the last item, the two governments announced, on 2 February 2006, that FTA talks would start in May 2006 and end by June 2007.

The implications of the US-Korea FTA stretch far beyond Korean movie houses as the agreement would open the entire Korean economy to US corporate penetration. Korean farmers and workers organised a strenuous resistance to the deal, with support from actors, students, health professionals, consumers groups, environmental organisation, veterinarians, lawyers and other sectors. Alliances were also built with opponents to the deal in the US, including AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labour union.

The first round of negotiations took place in the US on 5-9 June 2006. Ten months and eight formal rounds (not to mention numerous side talks on side agreements) later, the deal was concluded on 2 April 2007 in Seoul, just hours after a Korean taxi driver commited self-immolation in protest to the signing.

This was not the end, however. Two weeks later, newly elected Korean President Lee Myung-Bak travelled to Washington to sign the FTA. While there, on 18 April, the two governments inked yet another side deal that the US insisted was necessary for the FTA to go through. This deal laid out explicit rules on how Korea was to open its market in the broadest way to US beef imports, despite concerns about mad cow disease. The adoption of this secret pact triggered off what became known as the "beef crisis" in Korea. Students, mothers and consumers raised a fury of candlelight protests and other actions that by June 2008 had ministers resigning and the president own tenure under threat.

After several more years of sustained opposition to the agreement, the US-Korea FTA was finally ratification by both countries’ parliaments and took effect in November 2011 However opposition to, and concerns about the FTA have not faded since it passed, with many worried about the implications of the investor-state dispute mechanism in the deal.

last update: May 2012

Photo: Joe Mabel / CC BY-SA 3.0

Regrets over no FTA, but many great memories
"When I started four years ago I had a full head of hair and no grey hair," New Zealand Ambassador David Taylor jokingly told the Korea Herald before leaving the harsh Korean winter for the green pastures of a Kiwi summer.
Korea, US agree to start FTA negotiations
Korea and the U.S. could start negotiations for a free trade agreement in April, an insider said Friday. The government is reportedly thinking of announcing the expected benefits of an FTA in President Roh Moo-hyun’s New Year’s meeting with the press around Jan. 17. The FTA could be concluded around next March after a year or so of negotiations, the source added.
US links beef import to FTA with South Korea
Alexander Vershbow, Washington’s top diplomat to Seoul, said Tuesday that South Korea’s lifting of the ban on US beef could trigger talks on a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA).
Seoul moves to cut screen quota
The Ministry of Finance and Economy seeks to slash the screen quota to the number of days demanded by the US before proceeding with the stagnating Korea-U.S. bilateral investment treaty (BIT) and free trade agreement (FTA) talks.
Screen quota defenders rally for Unesco draft
The long-running dispute over Korea’s screen quota system is moving onto new ground: the quota’s supporters are rallying around the final draft of a Unesco convention that would exclude the cultural industries in all of the organization’s member states from free trade agreements or World Trade Organization bylaws.
Trade accord with US
Security has been so dominant in the past in Seoul’s relations with Washington, its sole military ally, that other crucial agenda items have often failed to draw adequate attention from top South Korean policymakers.
S. Korean envoy to US pledges efforts for FTA
Seoul and Washington need to begin talks on a free trade agreement (FTA) as soon as possible, Lee Tae-sik, South Korea’s new ambassador to the United States, said in Seoul Wednesday.
South Korea mulls clearing way to free-trade pact with US
South Korea will seriously consider resolving trade issues with the United States that are dampening efforts to forge a free-trade agreement, South Korean Deputy Prime Minister Han Duck-Soo said Friday.
AMCHAM urges Seoul to start FTA talks soon
The US business community in Korea Wednesday expressed its collective hope to launch free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations between South Korea and the U.S. within this year, noting increasing interest in forming such a trade pact among US policymakers.
US presses S. Korea on issues blocking FTA negotiations
The US Trade Representative (USTR), raising doubts about South Korea’s commitment to a bilateral free trade agreement, pressed the Asian trading partner Tuesday to be "unambiguous" in supporting it.


  • AMCHAM Korea
    The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea
  • Ben Muse - KORUS FTA
    A blog with a large number of links and references to the US-Korea FTA talks and analyses about them.
    Korean Americans Against War and Neoliberalism
  • Korea Policy Institute
    The US-based Korea Policy Institute produces policy briefs, organizes Congressional press briefings and sponsors policy roundtable on the proposed US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement.
  • Korean Civil Society Coalition against KORUS FTA on Intellectual Property Rigthts
    Korean Civil Society Coalition against KORUS FTA on Intellectual Property Rigthts (KCSC) is deeply worried about the Korea-US FTA negotiations especially on the issue of IPRs such as copyright, patent and trademark and strongly opposes the whole process of Korea-US FTA negotiations.
  • US-Korea FTA Business Council
    The US-Korea FTA Business Coalition is a group of over 100 leading US companies and trade associations that strongly support the conclusion and passage of a free trade agreement between the United States and the Republic of Korea.
  • VoiceofPeople
    The VoiceofPeople is a progressive internet press outfit in Korea covering the FTA struggle.