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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

Seoul to gather public opinion on FTA with US
In advance of negotiations with the United States on a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), the South Korean government that it would gather public opinion on the issue through e-mail.
’Korea-US FTA talks face bumpy road’
Seoul is unlikely to meet its timetable to strike a free trade agreement (FTA) deal with Washington by June next year due to a number of roadblocks that lie ahead, said an expert on South Korea.
Made in North Korea - or is it?
The issue of how much the North Korean workers are paid is, as one manager puts it, "a delicate question" as South Korea negotiates with the United States for a free trade agreement.
S Korea’s Roh says FTA with US top priority
President Roh Moo-Hyun said that reaching a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States will be the top priority for his government during his remaining tenure.
S. Korea to exclude rice, beef pacts from FTA talks with US
South Korea’s agriculture minister said Thursday that the country will not include deals on the liberalization of rice and beef imports in the agenda of upcoming free trade talks with the United States.
S Korean farmers, movie makers rally over US trade talks
Some 2,000 South Korean farmers, movie-makers and anti-US activists staged a candlelight protest Friday against free trade negotiations with the United States.
Exclusion of rice from trade deal ‘possible’
With the government’s recent efforts to sign a free trade agreement with the United States drawing intense opposition from farmers here, a top Korean government official said the trade negotiators would try to exempt rice from the economic pact.
S. Korea-US FTA should not be disrupted by interest groups: Roh
President Roh Moo-hyun said Thursday the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) should not be blocked by some interest groups’ resistance.
S. Korea to reflect farmers’ concerns in US free trade talks
"Farmers and ranchers will be invited to take part in negotiations from the outset," a Korean agricultural ministry official said.
S. Korean rice industry to be hit hard by FTA with US: Report
South Korea’s rice industry could suffer a significant drop in earnings and production if the country signs a free trade pact with the United States, even if rice is excluded from the deal, a report said Wednesday.


  • 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.