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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 to cut screen quota to boost FTA talks with US
South Korea said it would reduce by half its screen quota for domestically produced films, in a move aimed at facilitating talks with the United States on a free trade agreement (FTA).
Time to put a US-South Korea free trade agreement on the fast-track agenda
A memo from the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation.
USTR cites needs for agricultural tariff cuts in Korea
US Trade Representative Rob Portman said South Korean farmers’ protests are not expected to affect efforts to start negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA).
Value pact over quota
Work on talks for a free trade pact between Korea and the United States has been accelerating since President Roh Moo-hyun’s New Year’s address. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade recently announced it would hold a public hearing early next month to gather opinions on such a pact. Accordingly, the government is likely to soon declare the start of negotiations with Washington.
Free trade and movies
The government is hurrying to conclude a free trade agreement with the United States before June 2007 at the latest. It appears natural for Korea to facilitate the FTA process with America, the world’s largest economy and Seoul’s greatest ally. The biggest stumbling block is the screen quota, a protective device for the domestic film industry, or so says Washington.
Korea-US trade talks could start soon
Trade Minister Kim Hyun-jong said in a news conference Friday, “It remains to be seen whether the upcoming international economic ministers’ meeting scheduled for February 2 will decide to begin Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations.” Current Korean FTA regulations stipulate that an international economic ministers’ meeting shall make decisions on whether to start FTA negotiations after taking public opinion into consideration at a public hearing.
Korea seeks screen quota reduction
The government Friday launched a campaign to reduce the screen quota in exchange for starting bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) talks with the United States.
S. Korea seeks FTA with US
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said Wednesday he would push for a free-trade agreement with the United States as early as possible.
Korea-US FTA: Cool-headed approach needed to maximize actual benefits
The atmosphere is ripe for starting talks with the United States for a tariff-free trade scheme, which, if realized, may change this country’s overall industrial picture as never before. But an FTA with giant, advanced economies, like America’s, requires a very careful approach.
’Time not ripe for Korea, US to start FTA talks’
As Washington pushes Seoul to begin talks for forging a free trade agreement, the Korean government says both countries have not yet agreed on when or even whether negotiations will begin.


  • 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.