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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

Outlook Hopeful as Trade Talks Begin
Kim Hyun-jong, Korea’s trade minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Robert Portman, the United States Trade Representative, declared the start of preliminary ROK-U.S. ROK-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations at a joint press conference in the main hall of Capitol Building in Washington D.C. yesterday.
Support free-trade talks with S. Korea
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman’s newly announced plan to pursue a sweeping free trade agreement with South Korea is a bold step that, if done fairly, would be a win-win for the two nations, with long-term benefits for our economy.
Semiconductor Industry Association Applauds Launching U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement; Agreement Has Potential to Eliminate Trade Barriers
The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) today applauded United States Trade Representative Rob Portman for initiating talks with Korea on a Free Trade Agreement.
Hopes and Fears: Haste Should Not Make Waste in Free Trade Talks
The launch of free trade negotiations between Seoul and Washington Friday marks another watershed in the two allies’ overall relationship. Particularly in economic areas, the two countries will almost become one with 90 percent of trade being made without tariffs in a decade. Doubts are still strong about the need for hurrying into a free trade agreement with the world’s largest economy, but the die is cast. This is no longer a matter of whether or not but of how and what kind.
Car, Tech Industries Expected to Gain Most From FTA Deal
Local automobile and information technology (IT) industries are expected to benefit most from the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA).
Film People Begin Protest Against Screen Quota Cut
Members of the local film industry on Wednesday started their all-night relay rally against the government’s decision to halve the screen quota system.
Pact could mature alliance
The relationship between Korea and the United States until now was a firm security alliance to prevent the spread of communism. The announcement of free trade agreement negotiations is an expression of a will to establish a more developed general alliance, not only in ideology and military on a security level, but also in economic gains.
S. Korea, US announce start of FTA negotiations
South Korea and the United States announced Thursday they will start negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA). Formal negotiations will begin in May
Farmers break up hearing on US-South Korea FTA
Angry farmers have broken up a public hearing to discuss impending talks between South Korea and the US on establishing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), officials said.
AmCham wants coalition of film industries
A reduction in the mandatory screening days for domestic films would pave the way for a coalition between the film industries of South Korea and the United States, said Tami Overby, president of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Korea, 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.