Analysis: Korean cab driver self immolates to protest free trade agreement

New America Media, News Analysis

Apr 12, 2007

Korean Cab Driver Self Immolates to Protest Free Trade Agreement

Christine Ahn

Editor’s Note: In early April, a South Korean cab driver set himself on fire in protest of the new free trade agreement between the United States and South Korea. The trade agreement, opposed by most Koreans according to a recent poll, would have a negative impact on working class Americans as well argues Christine Ahn, a policy analyst with the Korea Policy Institute and the national coordinator of Korean Americans for Fair Trade.

On April 1, as trade negotiators from the United States and South Korea were finalizing a trade agreement, 54-year-old taxicab driver Heo Seowook poured 1.5 liters of gasoline on his body and set himself on fire outside the Hyatt Hotel in Seoul. His body engulfed in flames, he screamed, “Stop the Korea-U.S. FTA negotiations!”

Heo’s sacrifice didn’t stop negotiators from signing the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (Korus FTA).

Although this FTA is poised to reshape the landscape of South Korea and become the United States’ second largest trade deal after NAFTA, Americans have heard virtually nothing about it. The few times it has been discussed, trade ministers have framed it as a commercial agreement that will make trade between countries easier by eliminating complicated government codes and regulations that stifle innovation and commerce.

But this generic and abstract appeal breaks down as soon as we get into the specifics of how corporate interests will use the FTA in ways that will dramatically influence the lives of ordinary Americans and Koreans. The agreement will eliminate major industries and jobs in both countries while emboldening the rights of corporations to undermine public laws meant to protect ordinary workers, farmers and the disadvantaged.

Take, for example, access to medicine. South Korea has a universal healthcare system that reimburses people for medicine on a “preferred drug list,” largely generics and lower priced drugs. Wendy Cutler, the chief U.S. negotiator, has argued that this system “would end up discriminating against and limiting the access of Korean patients and doctors to the most innovative drugs in the world.”

In other words, a governmental policy that tries to manage spiraling pharmaceutical costs in order to provide access to medicine to as many people as possible is considered a barrier to trade.

Over 40 American states use a “preferred drug list” for Medicaid purchases. If the FTA is passed and South Korea’s “preferred drug list” is abolished, the Korean government could bring a lawsuit against the federal government alleging noncompliance by U.S. states under international treaties.

This may be exactly what the pharmaceutical industry, a supporter of the trade agreement, wants. According to Sean Flynn, professor at American University, “the pharmaceutical industry may achieve in stealthy trade negotiations what it has failed to do through millions of dollars spent opposing and challenging the country’s most effective drug spending control measures.”

In response to an op-ed co-authored by Flynn and Maine State Legislator Sharon Treat, one American wrote, “My wife and I are both disabled, and as it is, almost one third of our SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) income goes to out-of-pocket medication expenses. This could put us on the street - for my wife especially, her medications are her life. And there are a LOT of us out here.” This American could easily be speaking for the millions of Koreans whose access to drugs will be controlled by pharmaceutical giants rather than their own government.

The auto industry represents another example where the rhetoric of free trade founders on the shoals of the reality of people’s everyday lives. Detroit automakers have argued that South Korea’s tariffs and higher emission standards block American cars from reaching Korean consumers.

However, the rhetoric of the free trade agreement insists that U.S. tariffs be eliminated as well. According to Inside U.S. Trade Magazine, “the FTA would phase out the U.S. tariff for certain cars immediately and the 25 percent truck tariff over 10 years.” This could be potentially devastating for the U.S. auto industry since there is already a tremendous disparity in trade. Last year South Korea sold 700,000 vehicles in the United States while the United States sold just 4,000 cars in Korea. This mounting trade deficit could force the layoff of U.S. autoworkers and pressure wages downward as U.S. auto companies try to compete.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) predicts that “tens of thousands” of U.S. autoworkers will lose their jobs. Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow released a statement after the deal was signed, saying, "The automobile industry built the middle class in this country, and by supporting this agreement the administration has turned its back on our working families."

The UAW has been urging Congress to reject the deal, citing the industry’s experience with NAFTA. Under that agreement, liberalized trade with Mexico, that, like Korea, had a well-developed auto production infrastructure, led to a surging U.S. auto trade deficit.

Meanwhile, South Koreans will have a tougher time breathing while contributing to global warming. Under the FTA, South Korea has to lower its emission standards to ease the entry of U.S. autos into Korea.

Millions of Americans feel a quiet desperation due to spiraling health costs, anxieties over wages and job security, and other factors out of their control. South Koreans know this desperation only too well.

Heo’s act of setting himself on fire in protest was a very real, concrete response to an abstract rhetoric that relentlessly denies his personal experience as an ordinary worker simply trying to survive and provide for his loved ones.

In his will, Heo wrote, “Although the government is always giving lip service to participatory democracy, in fact that never happened when it unilaterally decided to expand the Pyongtaek U.S military base and to launch the Korea-U.S. FTA negotiation. Do not ridicule the dignified people anymore.”

Just as in the rest of the world, anti-American sentiment in South Korea is growing. Recent polls by the Korean Broadcasting Service found that 70 percent of Koreans felt the FTA would be more beneficial to the United States than to South Korea.

Just 31 percent of Korean lawmakers polled - mostly members of the conservative Grand National Party and the President’s Uri Party - supported ratification. Lawmakers, supported by farmers, comprised the 23 percent who said they would oppose the FTA. The remaining 42 percent of National Assembly lawmakers remain undecided.

According to a 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 22 percent of South Koreans responded to the U.S.-led Iraq War by organizing the largest popular boycott of American goods outside of the Muslim world - one that is likely to grow if the FTA is passed.

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