Postcard from…Seoul

Half the South Korean population is against the FTA, especially workers and farmers who have seen trade agreements like NAFTA lead to job flight, decaying rural communities, and increased social polarization. But what really unites Koreans against the FTA is the undemocratic nature of the negotiations process and the threat to Korea’s national sovereignty.

As the FTA talks recently entered their sixth round, protests in the capital Seoul have been intense. Despite a government ban, thousands took to the streets to demonstrate for an entire week.

Many of the protestors donned cow costumes to protest a key provision of the proposed agreement: increased U.S. beef exports to the Korean market.

Beef has been central to Korean disdain for the FTA. The issue here has been less about protecting Korean cattle ranchers than preserving public health regulations and the democratic rights of Korean citizens. Korea, like Japan, banned American beef three years ago after an outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States. In order to re-open the Korean market to U.S. beef, the Bush administration made lifting the ban a precondition to even beginning trade talks. Korea conceded, allowing boneless meat imports. Since that time, however, it has returned three beef shipments containing bone fragments. The U.S. beef industry, backed by influential members of Congress, reacted by demanding that Korea’s market be fully re-opened before talks end.

Korean opposition is widespread, even among housewives. According to Yonhap News, a recent survey found that over 70% of Korean housewives don’t want to buy American beef. The Korean public believes that because of lax U.S. regulations, diseased meat will make its way onto their tables. American officials say Koreans are overreacting, but Koreans say that only a small percentage of U.S. farms and meat are inspected.

Despite public protest, trade representatives from both sides met secretly in Washington to reach a “technical solution.” Beef industry leaders have called the proposal “encouraging.” But it still calls on Korea to lower its standards for accepting American beef.

Government officials have been calling the FTA an opportunity to strengthen the U.S.-Korea alliance, which has weakened during the Bush and Roh administrations. The FTA may indeed strengthen ties-between big businesses. The cost will be heightened anti-American sentiment among South Koreans who see the FTA as an affront to their public health, democracy, and national sovereignty.

Wol-san Liem is a doctoral candidate in history at New York University and a member of Korean Americans for Fair Trade.

Source: Foreign Policy in Focus Photo from FTA Watch