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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

New Seoul mayor speaks out against FTA with US
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has submitted an official opinion that the city opposes the Korea-US free trade agreement on Monday.
Korea: Prosecution vows stern actions against FTA protesters
Korean prosecutors said Monday they will resort to arrests and physical detention in dealing with protesters against the country’s long-stalled free trade agreement with the US.
FTA wrangling heats up outside Assembly
The main opposition Democratic Party stepped up its public campaign against the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement over the weekend, as the ruling Grand National Party mulled pushing a final vote at a plenary session Wednesday.
S.Korean parliament frozen over FTA with US
Confrontation at South Korea’s parliament over a free trade deal with the United States showed no sign of easing Friday, as some opposition lawmakers took to the streets while others continued sit-ins.
U.S. companies profit from investor-state dispute system
The South Korean government describes the investor-state dispute system (ISD), introduced by the country for 81 bilateral investment treaties (BITs) formed since 1967, as a means of protecting offshore investments by South Koreans. But South Korea has never once sued another country, nor has the government been sued by a foreign investor. The reason was that none of those treaties was with the United States.
The KORUS FTA’s problem of American exceptionalism
President Lee Myung-bak’s recent visit to the United States set a new political record. Prior to the South Korea-U.S. summit meeting, U.S. Congress passed the implementation bill for the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) with unprecedented speed. But does President Lee know that the KORUS FTA has no force in the United States whatsoever?
KORUS FTA battle approaches railroad or referendum
The ruling Grand National Party (GNP) ratcheted up the pressure on the opposition Friday, hinting at the possibility that it will exercise authority to raise the ratification motion for the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA).
S Koreans protest against trade deal with US
South Korean authorities have detained at least 15 people after police clashed with protesters demonstrating against the country’s free-trade agreement with the US.
Ruling party rules out using speaker’s authority for FTA vote
The floor leader of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) Wednesday opposed using the Assembly speaker’s authority to pass the long-pending free trade deal with the United States on the floor, saying a unilateral passage would cause distrust in party politics.
Imminent FTA action
Few would be surprised if the ruling Grand National Party resorted to its majority power to ram the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement bill through the National Assembly at any time. The GNP must believe it has accumulated enough justification to do so while the main opposition party has weak logic to ask for public support for its rejection of the bill. Rep. Chung Dong-young is in the center of the DP’s illogical and unreasonable behavior in the KORUS FTA tussle.


  • 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.