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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

Judge under fire for post critical of FTA railroad
Controversy is expected following a Supreme Court decision to deliberate in its public officials’ ethics committee over the appropriateness of a sitting associate judge’s Facebook post critical of the railroading of the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).
Assembly’s trade panel chief offers to resign over US FTA
The chairman of Korea’s parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, trade and unification offered to resign Thursday, two days after his ruling party forced through a free trade agreement with the United States amid tear gas and physical scuffles.
Preventing a KORUS FTA train wreck
The train for the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) has not yet left the station. We are the passengers on board, not the tearful ones waving handkerchiefs and seeing them off. We should never have boarded this train to begin with, but now that we have stumbled aboard, we must now do all we can to ensure the train does not derail, and get off before we reach the cliff.
Occupy, South Korean activists protest trade deal
Occupy Wall Street protesters joined with a group of South Korean activists on Tuesday to rally against the so-called free trade deal between Seoul and the United States. The demonstrators rallied outside the South Korean mission in New York.
Ruling government scrambles to contain voter backlash
Korea’s ruling GNP’s surprise railroading of the ratification of the US FTA on Tuesday stands a strong chance of having an unfavorable impact on the administration due to its “procedural violence.”
FTA to boost auto industry, hurt drug makers, farmers
The income levels of Korean farmers could be shaved, with the livestock industry in particular taking a severe beating following the implementation of the FTA.
Business groups welcome FTA passage as historic watershed
Business organizations on Tuesday hailed the parliamentary ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement as a major turning point in Korea’s economy and history of trade.
Opposition parties boycott Assembly sessions in protest of FTA passage
The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) vowed Wednesday to boycott all parliamentary sessions in protest of the ruling party’s unilateral passage of the disputed free trade agreement with the U.S.
Massive anti-FTA protests looming
Labor unions, farmers’ groups and progressive civic groups are threatening to stage large-scale protest rallies against the ruling Grand National Party for railroading a free trade agreement (FTA) with the U.S. through the National Assembly.
Korea’s National Assembly Ratifies KORUS FTA
Korean lawmakers ratified the long-pending Korea-United States free trade agreement Tuesday afternoon, about 50 days after the US Congress approved the deal.


  • 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.