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Five-thousand rally against free trade amidst strong police violence

KoA | Monday, March 12, 2007.

As the 8th round of Korea-U.S. FTA negotiations entered its third day, a peaceful mass rally was held on Saturday in protest of the talks. Police violence was heavy, but the protesters stood strong until the end, even when sticks came down and water cannon was fired on them. At the end of the day, ten were arrested, and as of today, five from labor and student groups are still held in jail.

The 8th round of talks is to be the last because an agreement must be reached by the end of March. The agreement then would be submitted to the U.S. Congress for an up or down vote by the end of June when Bush’s trade promotion authority expires. For South Korea, the 8th round of talks, which ends today, has been especially troubling. Except for automobile and agriculture, most issues have reached an agreement, including pharmaceuticals, procurement, textiles, and trade remedies. In order to bring the talks to conclusion, which has had strong pressures from U.S. lawmakers and presidents of both countries, South Korea is quickly giving in to the demands of capital and the USTR. A high-level talks will be held at the end of the month to finalize the deal.

On the morning of March 10, about five-thousand farmers, workers, students, and activists, marching from various locations, first gathered together near Ewha Woman’s University. The traffic at this busy junction was stopped for an hour. Then the mass dispersed and regrouped near the U.S. Embassy in Jongno. It was here that the police brought out the sticks and shields, which are used to strike at the protesters. Water cannon was fired despite the freezing temperature, but the five-thousand stood their ground and delivered their message. “Fellow countrymen and women,” shouted Jung Dae-hwan, Organizing Director of the Korean Alliance against Korea-U.S. FTA (KoA), “our spirit and struggle will not be stopped by police violence.”

The campaign to stop the FTA, which began in April 2006, has been a long battle. The farmers and workers’ groups have been weakening since November 2006 when the South Korean government declared all anti-FTA activities as illegal and arrested dozens of protesters. However, on Saturday, mobilization and militancy were back to the level necessary for the struggle to continue.

Jong-hoon Kim, South Korea’s chief negotiator, said that automobile and agriculture remain as deal-breakers. Especially sensitive is the beef issue. Although South Korea announced that it would accept U.S. beef except for the boxes that contain bone fragments, the U.S. has judged this to be inadequate and is demanding an unexceptional import of all U.S. beef.

Strong actions are being planned by KoA until early April. A relay hunger strike begins today, and by the end of the month, a thousand is expected to participate. South Korea has not seen a hunger strike at this scale since the protest against the National Security Law in 2003. Police suppression has not been this strong in decades.