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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

S. Korea, U.S. preparing for trade talks
South Korea and the United States could announce as early as this week their intention to launch formal negotiations aimed at a free trade accord seen as the biggest for the U.S. since the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994.
Time running short for FTA, says US biz lobby
Seoul-based American business leaders Wednesday called for more predictability, consistency and transparency in government policies, saying there is an extra mile to go for a business climate that offers global standards.
US businesses in Korea renew call for early FTA
The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea has renewed a call for early conclusion of a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Korea. AMCHAM president Tami Overby on Wednesday reminded reporters that a congressional authority for the U.S. government to expedite FTAs expires in June 2007 and time is therefore very short.
FTA talks with Washington need firm leadership
Korea has agreed to slash a screen quota reserving time in the theaters for domestic films to 73 days a year as requested by Washington, thus removing the last hurdle to free trade negotiations with the U.S. The government will reportedly announce the start date for the FTA talks early next month.
Korea-US FTA talks to start in May
"It is highly likely that the actual formal negotiation between Korea and the U.S. would begin in May, even though the official announcement is to be made in mid-February,’’ Korea International Trade Association (KITA) FTA Team head Jeong Jae-hwa said.
US, Korea inch closer to launch FTA
South Korea inched closer to launching a free trade deal with the United States Thursday after it agreed to reduce restrictions of its domestic film screenings a pivotal blockade in launching negotiations.
Seoul will cut protection for domestic film industry by 50%
Hollywood will get greater access to South Korea’s movie market after the government said Thursday that it would cut in half the quota of homegrown films that must be shown in the country’s cinemas.
S. Korea may announce start of FTA talks with US on Feb. 2
South Korea is expected to announce the start of free trade negotiations with the United States on February 2, a government source said Thursday.
Korea to halve screen quota
South Korea on Thursday decided to halve its 40-year-old screen quota, the mandatory period for theaters to show domestic films a year, to 73 days to clear the way for its free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States.
US, South Korea near free-trade talks
The United States and South Korea are very close to launching negotiations for a free-trade agreement, which would be the most economically significant free-trade pact for Washington since the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to people familiar with the matter.


  • 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.