[OPE] More than just a Beef: South Koreans push back against Free Trade Agreements with Canada, US

From: Gerald Levy <jerry_levy@verizon.net>
Date: Sun Feb 08 2009 - 09:34:18 EST

I suspect we'll see increasing resistance to FTAs in other countries in the
upcoming months.
In solidarity, Jerry

> * Korea: More Than Just a Beef
> South Koreans push back against Free Trade Agreements with Canada, US
> by Stefan Christoff
> http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/2424
> Since the collapse of the last round of World Trade Organization (WTO)
> negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, in September 2003, Canada and the US have
> rapidly signed several bilateral trade accords.
> South Korea, a major Asian economic power and the fourth largest in the
> region, has recently signed a major bilateral accord with the US and is
> currently negotiating a similar deal with Canada.
> Social movements in Korea have vigorously opposed the country's succession
> into the WTO since the mid-1990s and have actively mobilized in opposition
> to the more recent bilateral trade initiatives.
> Opposition from Korean peasant movements to 'free trade' policies gained
> international attention in the September 2003 Cancun meetings when Korean
> farmer Lee Kyung Hae took his own life in protest while holding a sign
> reading "WTO kills farmers."
> Hundreds of thousands participated in street protests in Seoul this past
> summer to oppose recent changes to US-Korean trade policy that was to
> allow US beef to re-enter Korean markets. Sale of US beef had been banned
> in Korea since the discovery of Mad Cow Disease in some US cattle. Recent
> protests in Korea against US beef imports mark the largest anti-government
> protests in decades.
> Opposition to US trade policy in Korea extends past US beef, to the
> recently negotiated US-Korea bilateral trade deal - after the North
> American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the largest regional trade
> agreement signed by the US.
> In December, scuffles broke out at the National Assembly in Korea as
> opposition politicians attempted to enter a locked-door session of the
> parliamentary committee on trade discussing the US bilateral deal, which
> remains extremely controversial in Korea.
> In parallel with the US-Korea deal, officials from the Conservative
> government in Canada have been pushing to sign a similar bilateral deal.
> Labour unions in both countries have opposed the deal, including the
> Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW). The CAW stated, "We refuse to enter into
> a competition with Korean workers for future prosperity. Working people in
> all countries have the right to job security, fair trade, and economic and
> social development."
> In an attempt to understand the drive from US and Canadian officials to
> secure bilateral trade deals with Korea, Stefan Christoff spoke with
> Christine Ahn of Korean Americans for Fair Trade on the bilateral trade
> accords and grassroots opposition in Korea.
> Stefan Christoff: Concerning the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement and also
> the Canada-Korea FTA, can you outline how this agreement will impact
> environmental and labour standards in South Korea, Canada and the US?
> Christine Ahn: Impacts on working people stemming from the North American
> Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Canada, Mexico and the US make it clear
> that extending similar trade policies to Korea will only create further
> damage [for] all countries involved.
> Essentially, economic and trade policy being pushed on Korea through the
> WTO and the IMF-imposed structural adjustment following the Asian
> financial crisis in the late 1990s have moved Korea from a relatively
> self-reliant, industrial and agrarian economy to an economy increasingly
> dependent on exports and international market trends. This economic
> transformation, led by structural adjustment, broke the backbone of the
> trade union movement. Today in Korea over 50 per cent of the workforce are
> now irregular workers.
> Trade unions in Korea had succeeded in creating a situation in which
> workers' rights were beginning to improve in Korea in the early 1990s,
> whereas for decades under authoritarian regimes workers were seriously
> oppressed; now again under neo-liberal economic policies, workers' rights
> are being seriously undermined.
> Past experiences of workers throughout North America under NAFTA and the
> plight of Korean workers under neo-liberal policies make it extremely
> clear that the Korea-US trade agreement, the second largest US trade deal
> after NAFTA, must be opposed.
> Christoff: Can you outline how the US-Korea trade accord would impact
> different elements of Korean society, for example on the national
> healthcare system and also on the peasants which have a long history of
> political mobilization in Korea?
> Ahn: Pharmaceutical provisions that are included under this US-Korea Free
> Trade Agreement are terrible. Korea does not have the best universal
> health care system but there is a public system intact. Under the US trade
> agreement the current list of medications that are available to people
> through public healthcare would be challenged.
> US pharmaceutical companies have been trying to push for a new
> pharmaceutical list, which would stack the list with US-patented
> pharmaceuticals which are so much more expensive than generic
> pharmaceuticals, putting a major strain on Korea's healthcare system and
> ensuring profits for US pharmaceutical companies through Korea's national
> healthcare system.
> Exporting the US model for healthcare is a disastrous idea. In the US,
> there are over 45 million people who do not have healthcare, which is
> certainly a scenario not to encourage in other countries.
> Clearly workers' rights will be detrimentally impacted by this agreement
> both in North America and in Korea. Under such agreements corporations can
> simply pick up their operations and move them to other countries that have
> weaker environmental and labour standards, lower production costs, while
> [the same companies] have the ability to send their produced goods around
> the world without paying any tariffs.
> Only 10 years ago, Korea once was a largely agrarian economy with around
> 10 million farmers and now there are only around 3.5 million farmers. A
> mass migration has taken place, people moving from the countryside into
> the cities, contributing to growing unemployment rates, as fierce
> competition has also driven down the wages in the country. Also, there is
> a massive depression of Korea.s rural economy due to the flight to urban
> centres. This mass internal migration has severely impacted the economy of
> Korea's non-urban centres.
> Under NAFTA, the US ensured that agribusiness was subsidized with hundreds
> of millions to 'compete' with the small-scale South Korean farmers. It is
> positive that rice is not included in this agreement because in Korea rice
> farmers make up the largest number of peasants in the country, who would
> be seriously impacted by imports of cheap rice from the US. Under WTO
> regulations, however, Korea will eventually have to erase the tariffs on
> imported rice anyway, so even rice farmers will be hit by cheap imports.
> The Korea-US bilateral trade agreement is worsening the situation for
> people in Korea and in the US. The agreement will eliminate tariffs that
> protect local industries while granting further rights to corporations to
> privatize further many social and public industries.
> Christoff: Can you talk about some of the main issues that people
> highlighted on the ground in Korea as concerns this agreement?
> Ahn: A major issue is beef, which isn't currently included in the
> agreement, however [it] has been used as a leveraging tool by the US.
> US negotiators are pushing Korea to remove the 2003 ban on US beef
> imports, imposed after Mad Cow Disease was discovered in the US, seriously
> impacting US beef imports to Korea. During this process there were major
> education campaigns within Korea and also in Japan, educating the public
> concerning the potential harm stemming from US beef.
> As a pre-condition to negotiations surrounding the US-Korea Free Trade
> Agreement, negotiators on the Korean side are being pressured to weaken
> laws concerning the imports of US beef. Essentially the US has been using
> the beef issue within the negotiations as an exchange to allow Korean
> industries to export greater amounts of electronics, conductor chips and
> automobiles into the US.
> In the US and Canada, autoworker unions are highlighting the major
> imbalance between the number of automobiles being exported by Korea into
> the US and the limited number of automobiles that US manufacturers are
> exporting to Korea; a trade imbalance.
> Autoworker unions in the US and Canada are saying that these bilateral
> accords should only be signed if a certain amount of automobile exports to
> Korea are secured. Actually, on the Korean side there is concern about
> importing larger numbers of US-manufactured automobiles because generally
> the engines are less environmentally friendly. So these bilateral
> agreements are flawed on both sides as they are fundamentally
> market-driven, agreements that doesn.t prioritize other critical points
> such as the environment, health or labour standards.
> People in Korea are very concerned that the US is using this agreement as
> a wedge to dismantle health, environment and labour laws, and also the
> national healthcare system. These are real concerns in Korea as opposition
> to this agreement and are being most strongly pushed by peasants and
> farmers who have direct, first-hand experience of the impacts of
> neo-liberal economic policies in Korea.
> Korean peasants have really galvanized a strong opposition to neo-liberal
> economic and trade policies within peasant movements in the country, but
> also throughout the Third World. This opposition was strongly felt in
> Cancun, Mexico, during the WTO negotiations and again in Hong Kong.
> Essentially these bilateral accords are viewed by Korean peasants as
> [leading to] a loss of their dignity and autonomy.
> * Stefan Christoff is a journalist and community organizer. This interview
> was originally produced for the Fighting FTAs project, an international
> project that provides a global picture on free trade agreements (FTAs),
> and insight into struggles being waged by social movements fighting back.

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Received on Sun Feb 8 22:42:09 2009

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