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More Than Just a Beef: South Koreans Push Back Against Free Trade Agreements with Canada, U.S.

Since the collapse of the last round of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, in September 2003, Canada and the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-Korean trade policy that was to allow U.S. beef to re-enter Korean markets. Sale of U.S. beef had been banned in Korea since the discovery of Mad Cow Disease in some U.S. cattle. Recent protests in Korea against U.S. beef imports mark the largest anti-government protests in decades.

Opposition to U.S. trade policy in Korea extends past U.S. beef, to the recently negotiated U.S.-Korea bilateral trade deal – after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the largest regional trade agreement signed by the U.S.

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 U.S. bilateral deal, which remains extremely controversial in Korea.

In parallel with the U.S.-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 U.S. 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-U.S. 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 U.S.?

Christine Ahn: Impacts on working people stemming from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. 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-U.S. trade agreement, the second largest U.S. trade deal after NAFTA, must be opposed.

Christoff: Can you outline how the U.S.-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 U.S.-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 U.S. trade agreement the current list of medications that are available to people through public healthcare would be challenged.

U.S. pharmaceutical companies have been trying to push for a new pharmaceutical list, which would stack the list with U.S.-patented pharmaceuticals which are so much more expensive than generic pharmaceuticals, putting a major strain on Korea’s healthcare system and ensuring profits for U.S. pharmaceutical companies through Korea’s national healthcare system.

Exporting the U.S. model for healthcare is a disastrous idea. In the U.S., 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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-U.S. bilateral trade agreement is worsening the situation for people in Korea and in the U.S. 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 U.S.

U.S. negotiators are pushing Korea to remove the 2003 ban on U.S. beef imports, imposed after Mad Cow Disease was discovered in the U.S., seriously impacting U.S. 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 U.S. beef.

As a pre-condition to negotiations surrounding the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, negotiators on the Korean side are being pressured to weaken laws concerning the imports of U.S. beef. Essentially the U.S. 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 U.S.

In the U.S. and Canada, autoworker unions are highlighting the major imbalance between the number of automobiles being exported by Korea into the U.S. and the limited number of automobiles that U.S. manufacturers are exporting to Korea; a trade imbalance.

Autoworker unions in the U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. 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, and insight into struggles being waged by social movements fighting back.

Christine Ahn is a Fellow with the Korea Policy Institute and a staff member of Korean Americans for Fair Trade.


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