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Trade talk protesters promise no violence

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Trade talk protesters promise no violence

U.S. and South Korea hold sessions in Seattle

By Dan Richman, P-I Reporter

6 September 2006

Mention "Seattle" and "trade talks" in the same sentence and you’ll send a chill through residents who remember December 1999, when destructive riots broke out during the World Trade Organization meeting.

But protesters gearing up for the latest round of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement talks, which begins here today, pledged a peaceful response.

Negotiations at the downtown Washington State Convention and Trade Center, which end Saturday, are closed to the public. So "we are being forced to express our opinions by going to the streets," said Misook Lee, a vice president of the Korean Medical and Health Workers’ Union.

"However, unlike the concerns that some people have, we will always be expressing our opinions in the most peaceful manner, and in the way that reflects the sentiments of the Korean people," she said through a translator Tuesday at Seattle’s Labor Temple.

Seattle police Capt. Steve Brown, commander of the West Precinct, said the organizers of several planned rallies and marches have indicated in their meetings with police that they plan to follow all regulations.

"We’re not expecting to see any kind of violence or disruption to the city," Brown said.

He said that the number of people participating in the protests and marches will likely vary, but that coordinators are expecting to draw 1,000 to 3,000 people to the marches. Westlake Plaza is already designated as an approved gathering place throughout the talks, Brown said, and he expects the number of people will also fluctuate there.

The free trade talks, known as KORUS, are the latest of numerous attempts by the U.S. government and other countries to reduce trade barriers. Perhaps the best-known of them, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), went into effect in 1993.

Roughly 10,000 tariffs, quotas and other trade barriers exist between South Korea and the U.S., Chief U.S. Trade Negotiator Wendy Cutler said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Especially affected by those restrictions are pharmaceuticals, intellectual property protection and agricultural, industrial and textile goods.

Cutler said this round of talks — the third of five — opens their "give and take" phase. She said the new phase "will be extremely challenging."

The U.S. delegation has more than 100 people, from about 20 government agencies. It’s one of the largest delegations the U.S. has fielded for a foreign trade agreement outside the nation’s capital, Cutler said. South Korea has a 200-member delegation.

About 17 negotiating groups and two working groups are at work on the Korean agreement. They deal with areas including competition policy, e-commerce and intellectual-property protection — an area that has been the source of repeated conflicts between the countries.

Some of the more challenging negotiations involve automobiles, pharmaceuticals and sanitary measures related to agricultural practices, Cutler said.

For example, the South Korean government imposes high tariffs or even restrictive quotas on imports of some crops, keeping American farmers out of the country, she said. An 8 percent tariff on foreign cars, plus taxes and repeated standards and certification requirements, help keep American cars off the South Korean market.

All agreements the group achieves would apply to South Korean corporations of all sizes, including chaebols — large, family controlled South Korean corporate groups such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG.

The negotiations opened in June in Washington, D.C., and moved for their second round to Seoul, South Korea’s capital, in July. The fourth and fifth rounds are scheduled for October and December, though their locations haven’t been determined.

The talks are intended to produce a final trade agreement by year end, said U.S. Trade Representative spokesman Steve Norton.

South Korea is Washington state’s fourth-largest partner and sixth-largest export market, Cutler said. But this agreement means more to South Koreans than to Americans, to judge by the scores of South Korean reporters in town and the relatively few American journalists.

Norton said Seattle itself asked to host this round of negotiations. "They reached out to us and we said, ’Hey, it’s a good idea,’ " he said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she plans to lead a trade and education mission Oct. 16-20 to South Korea and Taiwan. About 70 people are to go with her, including representatives of Boeing, Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser and 20 other companies.

Protests against the agreement this week include a march, rally and candlelight vigil in Westlake Plaza today, a traditional Buddhist walk-and-bow march Friday at noon in that same location, and a funeral march at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Federal Building, symbolizing "the lack of free speech and democracy throughout this process," said Misook Lee, whose union, with 42,000 members, could be affected by trade agreements on pharmaceuticals.

She said the South Korean government "has been promising us a rosy future. But the negotiations have not reflected any of the opinions of the actual Korean people."

Thea Lee, a Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO who isn’t related to Misook Lee, called on South Korean and American leaders to "impose a moratorium on the negotiations until we can change their direction and incorporate the voices of working families."

Responding to that call, U.S. negotiator Cutler said later in the day, "I think we have a pretty good track record in the U.S. in seeking the views and input into our negotiations from a broad range of constituents. We held a public hearing, and the AFL-CIO and other organizations did testify."

Labor-oriented speakers who object to the talks argued:

# They are off-limits to the public and don’t include any labor organizations, environmental advocates or communities.

# KORUS wouldn’t protect workers, demanding the signers only enforce their own labor laws, rather than adhering to stronger labor laws like those of the International Labour Organization.

# KORUS would give multinational corporations the right to sue governments over public-health and environmental regulations that work against their interests.

# If past trade agreements such as NAFTA give an accurate idea of what KORUS promises, then that trade agreement will cause lower wages in the U.S. and move U.S. jobs overseas.

"NAFTA was supposed to open markets in Mexico for American-produced consumer goods," Thea Lee said. "Instead, it has drastically increased our trade deficit with Mexico ... entailing the loss of more than 1 million U.S. jobs over the past 12 years. These agreements simply haven’t delivered on their key promises.’"


2005 statistics



$27.77 billion


$43.78 billion











Sources: Census Bureau, Korean National Statistical Office, government sources

P-I reporter Hector Castro contributed to this report.