OneWorld US | Feb. 16, 2007
U.S.-Korea Trade Negotiations Get Nowhere
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 16 (OneWorld) - Trade unionists on both sides of the Pacific expressed relief Thursday after a seventh round of free trade negotiations between South Korea and the United States ended without an agreement.
"A majority of people are opposed to this," Hyun Lee of the group Korean Americans Against War and Neoliberalism told OneWorld. "None of the benefits of these trade agreements go to ordinary people and ordinary workers. They only go to fatten the pockets of transnational corporations."
Lee helped coordinate a week of protests by Korean and American trade unionists in Washington, DC, which culminated in a three-day-long sit-in outside the Washington Court Hotel, where negotiations were taking place. At one point, leaders of the Korean Peasants League and the Korean Federation of Trade Unions demanded a face-to-face meeting with South Korea’s chief negotiator and, with little hope of that happening, tried to break into the hotel.
"We are persistent in making sure there is a constant pressure of opposition at every negotiation," Lee said. "Whether they’re in Montana, Seattle, Washington, or Korea, we always have a presence of protesters outside."
Lee noted the stakes are huge in the U.S.-South Korea trade negotiations. South Korea currently has the tenth largest economy in the world, meaning an agreement with the United States would be the largest free trade deal since the United States, Mexico, and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) more than a decade ago.
The pressure is also high because negotiators from the two countries are racing to reach an agreement before April 2, when U.S. President George W. Bush’s Congressionally mandated trade authority is set to expire.
The Bush administration has made forging a deal a major priority, so much so that the president included the issue on his agenda during a telephone call with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun Wednesday. In a statement on the South Korean leader’s Web site, Roh’s office said the two presidents reiterated their "strong commitment to successfully conclude the free trade talks."
"They agreed to continue encouraging one another," the statement said, "allowing the delegations to demonstrate flexibility and take the initiative in seeking a mutually satisfying way of reaching agreement in a timely manner."
But some observers say the two sides are simply too far apart. South Korea is seeking to protect its agricultural sector, particularly rice farmers, who are already racking up record debt because their country is being flooded with cheap grains under previously signed trade deals.
Domestic protection of both countries’ auto industries is also at issue, as is Hollywood’s desire to eliminate a cap on foreign films showing in Korean movie-houses.
Jeff Vogt, a global economics specialist for the United States’ largest trade confederation, the AFL-CIO, believes there’s no way the differences can be bridged before the end of March.
He also said that once the U.S. president’s "fast track" for negotiations expires, it will be very difficult for him to get it back.
"The Democratic leadership is taking our concerns into consideration," Vogt said, "especially in terms of making sure there are very strong labor protections in future trade agreements."
Already, Vogt said, Democratic leaders in Congress are seeking to change free trade agreements the Bush administration negotiated with Colombia, Peru, and Panama. None of those deals has yet been ratified by the Senate, which under the U.S. Constitution must approve all treaties with foreign governments.
"Every free trade agreement negotiated since NAFTA has followed essentially the same model," Vogt said. "They have lowered wages and working conditions in both the United States and the other country that signed the agreement. That might not have raised much concern in Washington when the other country was a small nation like Guatemala, which really couldn’t affect the U.S., but Korea has a big economy and any deal would make a big impact."
Hyun Lee of Korean Americans Against War and Neoliberalism isn’t surprised Congressional Democrats are resisting.
"In the last elections, the American public sent a strong signal on the issue of war and also many of the new Democrats won seats on a fair trade ticket," she said. "They pledged to end ’fast track’ and they will be accountable to the people who voted them in."