Anti-FTA protests continue amid last round of FTA talks
SEOUL, March 26 (Yonhap) — Protests continued here on Monday as negotiators from South Korea and the United States began their final round of talks in Seoul, hoping to seal a free trade agreement (FTA), organizers and police said.
About 50 anti-FTA activists rallied in front of a Seoul hotel, where the talks were underway, and voiced their opposition to the free trade talks, police said.
The Korean Alliance Against the Korea-U.S. FTA, a protest group, said in a statement that large-scale demonstrations would be held throughout the week to oppose the negotiations.
The group accused the government of rushing to finalize a deal without sufficient deliberation on its possible side effects.
"By holding minister-level talks, the Korean government is trying to get the FTA finalized in a hurry without ever considering the consequences," the group said.
South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong and his U.S. counterpart Karan Bhatia, deputy U.S. Trade Representative, have taken the lead in this week’s talks in a move to give impetus to the negotiations which are believed to be at a crucial stage with the deadline only a week away.
The deadline is Friday, the last working day before U.S. officials must submit a deal for a mandatory 90-day congressional review period for a simple yes-or-no vote without amendments under the rules of President George W. Bush’s fast-track trade promotion authority, which expires on July 1.
South Korea’s Kim Jong-hoon and his American counterpart Wendy Cutler, who have been leading the 10-month-long talks, were also at the bargaining table.
This week’s anti-FTA rallies are expected to be among the most vigorous as the talks near the end.
On Sunday, thousands of South Korean activists took to the streets to voice their opposition to the FTA.
Organizers claimed that more than 15,000 farmers, laborers, students, and progressive lawmakers participated, while police put the number at around 7,500. No violent clashes were reported.
Former Justice Minister Chun Jung-bae, a member of the ruling Uri Party and a presidential hopeful, went on an indefinite hunger strike Monday, saying a free trade deal with the U.S. would be detrimental for South Korea.
"Looking at the current situation, I feel we have nothing to gain but everything to lose," the lawmaker told reporters before beginning his protest.
Moon Sung-hyun, head of the progressive Democratic Labor Party, also continued his hunger strike that has lasted nearly three weeks, according to party officials.
A nonpartisan group of five lawmakers were joined by film directors and actors in a news conference and expressed their concerns over the possibilities that the FTA talks might include the abolishment of a protective quota for South Korean movies.
"We urge the government not to make a sacrifice of the screen quota for an FTA deal," they said in a statement.
Under South Korea’s screen quota system, all domestic cinemas should screen homegrown films for at least 73 days a year. Washington has contended the system belies free trade notions by impeding the efforts of U.S. studios to increase their market share in South Korea.
If Seoul and Washington strike a deal in time, some studies show that it would boost bilateral trade by about 20 percent. Two-way trade reached US$74 billion last year.
But South Korean farmers, workers and activists say the deal, if concluded, would threaten their livelihoods with cheaper agricultural goods and harsh working conditions, including lower wages.