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S Korean activists promise peaceful protests against US FTA

Asia Pulse News


Monday May 29, 2006

SEOUL, May 29 Asia Pulse - South Korean activists have pledged to hold legitimate and peaceful protests against a proposed South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) in Washington early next month, allaying concerns about their militant demonstrations in the past, organizers said Monday.

About 100 activists were scheduled to leave for Washington on June 4 to protest the start of the first round of free trade negotiations between the two countries, which begins June 5, according to Joo Jei-joon, general coordinator of the Korea Alliance Against Korea-U.S. FTA, a group representing 280 organizations of farmers, labors and filmmakers.

Last December, Hong Kong police arrested nearly 1,000 South Korean farmers after a violent demonstration against a World Trade Organization meeting.

"Obviously, we will have a peaceful rally there under the legal criteria," Joo said in a telephone interview. "We want to explain to American citizens about why we oppose the FTA with the U.S."

"Our aim is to stop the FTA with the U.S. that will devastate the farmers and the workers in South Korea," said Joo, who was also due to join the U.S. demonstrations.

Joo said the number of activists participating into the U.S. rally will probably be cut a bit because the U.S. government hasn’t issued entry visas for some members.

During the six-day rally in Washington, the alliance plans to hold a variety of peaceful demonstrations including candlelight vigils at a park in front of the White House. The alliance also plans to stage a rally with labor groups in the U.S., Joo said, declining to elaborate.

Unlike the violent demonstrations in Hong Kong, the activists will carry only banners and flags, not bamboo sticks or rocks, Joo said.

"I have heard the Washington authorities will allow us to hold demonstrations and we will do it in a peaceful manner," he said.

On May 19, the South Korean government warned the activists not to go to the U.S. during the period of the first formal free trade talks, saying it will not have any positive impact on the negotiations and give South Korea a bad image again.

On Monday afternoon, Vice Finance Minister Chin Dong-soo told a program on state-run KBS radio that, "It is not desirable for the activists to hold a rally in Washington. The police in Washington are very strict in controlling demonstrations."

In a press statement posted on its Web site, the alliance accused the government of President Roh Moo-hyun of proceeding with the free trade accord with the U.S. under what it calls pressure from U.S. President George Bush.

"If South Korea signs an FTA with the U.S., 3.5 million South Korean farmers will face devastation under mounting debts," the statement reads. "In addition, South Korea will lose all of its economic sovereignty to the U.S."

The alliance cited Mexico as an example, saying it was mired in poverty, social confusion and economic downturn after signing a free trade accord with the U.S. 12 years ago.

In February, South Korea and the U.S. agreed to begin the first round of official talks on the free trade agreement June 5-9, with an aim to wrap up the deal by the end of next March.

To start the talks, Seoul had bowed to demands from Washington by cutting the quota on the number of domestic movies shown in local theaters and deciding to resume imports of U.S. beef, which had been banned due to mad-cow disease outbreaks.

On May 19, South Korea and the U.S. exchanged their drafts of a free trade agreement ahead of the formal talks.

According to a nine-page summary of drafts released by the South Korean government, Seoul plans to demand Washington accept goods made in North Korea’s Kaesong industrial park as South Korean products during the formal talks, a move opposed by the U.S.

Currently, more than a dozen South Korean companies are producing products ranging from clothes and kitchenware in the North Korean city of Kaesong, located just a few kilometers north of the heavily fortified zone that divides the two Koreas.

South Korea expects a free trade agreement with the U.S. would help boost inter-Korean business projects. However, the Kaesong matter will be one of the most contentious areas during the trade negotiations with the U.S., experts here say.

Another difficult issue will be reducing South Korea’s agricultural import barriers, especially for rice.

In the summary, the South Korean government said it will introduce a "special agricultural tariff" to prevent the volume of imported farm goods from surging beyond a certain level after the trade accord with the U.S., without elaborating further.

On April 17, South Korea’s Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong, who is leading the talks, warned in a statement that the upcoming trade negotiations could collapse if the deal threatens South Korea’s national interests.

"Clearly, there is a Maginot line for the South Korea-U.S. free trade talks," Kim said in the statement. "If our Maginot line isn’t protected, it may lead to a potential failure following stalemated free trade talks with Japan in November 2004."

The warning by Kim, who compared mounting domestic criticism of the talks to the system of fortifications built by France to defend itself from a German invasion in World War I, was seen as the strongest comment by South Korean government officials ahead of the formal talks.

South Korea has inked free trade agreements with Chile, Singapore and the European Free Trade Association.


 source: Yonhap