Fighting the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement

Korean activists protest the Free Trade Agreement discussions in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Sarah Friedman

Participants in the growing movement inside South Korea who are opposed to the proposed U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement held demonstrations in Washington, D.C. during the first week of June while negotiations were being conducted. The South Korean government, working hand in hand with the U.S. government tried to stop protesters from traveling to the United States.

Hundreds of South Korean workers and farmers had their visas denied. The South Korean government planted stories in the mainstream media to conjure images of violence, bloodshed and long prison sentences in U.S. jails for anyone who dared go to Washington to protest.

In the face of these obstacles, the South Korean workers’ and farmers’ movement succeeded in staging dramatic militant protests in the heart of Washington between June 4 and June 9.

“Workers of the world, and in particular the workers in South Korea and the United States, should unite in order to stop the Free Trade Agreement,” stated Oh Jongryul, co-chairman of the Korean Alliance Against KORUS FTA, in a June 4 rally in Lafayette Park, just hundreds of feet from the White House.

The venerable South Korean leader warned the workers of the United States and South Korea that if the U.S.-Korean FTA is implemented, it will have the same negative impact in both countries as occurred when the U.S. imposed the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexico in 1994.

Chairman Oh Jongryul was one of 45 South Koreans that did manage to get visas to come to Washington for this week of protest. They were joined by hundreds from Korean American communities throughout the United States, along with a smaller delegation from North America including representatives from the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism).

In March 2006, a coalition of progressive Korean organizations formed the Mobilize and Organize to Resist FTAs and Neo-liberal Globalization.

Behind closed doors

The demonstrators staged militant demonstrations in Washington, D.C., wherever the U.S. and South Korean delegates met. They denounced the fact that the FTA is being negotiated behind closed doors between representatives of governments and capitalist corporations.

Unions, farmers’ organizations and environmental groups have no input.

The main South Korean trade union federations vehemently oppose the proposed Free Trade Agreement. Representatives from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions spoke at the June 4 rally in front of the White House and participated in all the militant protest activities that were conducted during the week.

The AFL-CIO issued a public statement supporting the demonstrations.

The FTA is particularly menacing to South Korean farmers. The United States wants to open up South Korea’s rice market so that U.S. corporate agribusiness can export cheap rice into the country and make it impossible for Korean farmers to compete. Many of South Korea’s 3.5 million rice farmers are likely to be driven off the land if confronted with competition from U.S. agribusiness.

The South Korean government also agreed to lift price controls on medicines and other pharmaceutical products. This was a precondition demanded by the U.S. government for the FTA negotiations to proceed.

South Korea’s national healthcare system regulates the pricing of medicine. The FTA would abolish the right to limit costs, putting affordable health care for many senior citizens and those suffering from long-term illnesses out of reach. Acting on behalf of capitalist pharmaceutical interests, the U.S. government seeks to make sickness and disease in South Korea a source of ever growing profit for U.S. corporations.

U.S.-South Korean trade was over $70 billion in 2004. South Korea is the seventh largest trading partner with the United States and the seventh largest export market. If the FTA passes, U.S. agricultural exports to South Korea are estimated to increase by more than 200 percent.

International solidarity needed

A statement released by the ANSWER Coalition at a rally opposing the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement emphasized the need for working-class solidarity. “We are here today, in the shadow of the White House to protest against the so-called Free Trade Agreement,” the statement read. “This free trade is not free at all. It allows the imperialist government and the imperialist corporations who have become rich and powerful from a century of colonial plunder and exploitation to dictate the terms of the new economic colonialism.

“It is not ‘free’—it comes at a heavy price. It is free for the corporations but that is because the farmers and workers pay the entire cost. And it will be the average workers and farmers, not only in South Korea but in the United States too, who will be giving a free ride to their exploiters.

“In the United States, the corporations are destroying decent paying jobs, union jobs, pensions and health insurance and ‘running away’ to wherever they can pay workers a lower wage.

“They hope that working people in different countries will compete with each other as we race toward the bottom—as we race to see who will be able to satisfy the profit-lust of the corporations by offering our labor for a lower and lower price.”

As U.S. and South Korean capitalist corporations continue their own drive for profit in South Korea, the United States and around the world, it is the people’s struggle alone that can stop them in their tracks.

The June 4-9 demonstrations, rallies and teach-ins are a step forward for the unified international movement against free trade for the capitalists at the expense of workers around the world.
Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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