Thursday, September 07, 2006

FTA Round 3: first day report

Here's a story from the Hankyoreh/Yonhap on the opening of the FTA talks in Seattle. Scenes of the protest were also broadcast on the news around Korea, so that means the story is getting quite a lot of coverage. The newscast I saw focused on how American workers and Korean farmers had marched together. There was also some fun shots of American protestors doing some protest dances with the farmers.
South Korea/US FTA talks open amid protests.

Free trade negotiators from South Korea and the United States ended the first day of talks Wednesday, sending mixed signals that they achieved "some progress" but also faced "some challenges."

Outside the negotiating venue, several hundred U.S. protesters, joined by about 60 South Koreans from Seoul, staged a peaceful rally, shouting, "Stop the FTA." There were no reports of violence.

At the negotiating table, all exchanges were serious and businesslike, both sides said.

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"Today, some meetings have made some progress. I think some other groups were facing some challenges," Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler told a group of U.S. business leaders after the meeting which lasted almost eight hours.

"I hope this meeting will be a very productive round," said Cutler who headed the U.S. delegation in Seattle. "I think we have good discussions in industrial and agricultural goods." The chief South Korean delegate, Kim Jong-hoon, said the first-day discussions did not cover rice, one of the most sensitive items on the table. Rice is the main staple of the 48.5 million South Koreans.

"Because today is the first day, the mood was good," Kim said.

"No discussions on rice was held today." South Korea is keen to protect its uncompetitive agricultural sector, including rice, while the U.S. is concerned about its less competitive textile industry.

The two sides aim to wrap up the negotiations by year's end to allow time for their lawmakers to ratify the accord before June 30, when the U.S. president's "fast track" authority runs out. The authority allows U.S. trade officials to negotiate a deal without congressional amendments.

Given a number of knotty problems lying ahead, however, it's unclear whether they will be able to meet the schedule. In Seoul on Thursday, a group of 24 lawmakers, including 14 ruling party members, filed a legal suit, questioning the constitutionality of the proposed FTA.

This week's talks, which will continue until Saturday, come amid predictions of difficulty. Two previous rounds of talks, the first in Washington and the second in Seoul, ended without much headway.

Other knotty topics on the agenda include the status of goods made in an inter-Korean industrial complex in North Korea, automobiles, textiles and South Korea's new drug-pricing policy.

The second round of talks in July ended a day earlier than scheduled, after U.S. officials pulled out, protesting South Korea's new drug-pricing policy, under which patients are reimbursed when they buy medicine approved by the government.

U.S. officials argue that the Korean system could discriminate against newly developed American medicines. South Korea has so far refused to back down.

A smaller-than-expected protest rally involving several hundred people was held two blocks north of the Museum of History and Industry in downtown Seattle where the talks were held. Organizers had predicted "thousands" would attend the ally.

"No to KORUS FTA," the protesters shouted, with some beating drums. KORUS FTA stands for the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

"I don't understand why our government pushes ahead with the free trade talks with the U.S., because it would be no help for our national interest," Kang Ki-gab, a South Korean opposition lawmaker, said at the rally.

Wearing South Korea's traditional cotton robe and slippers, the farmer-turned lawmaker from the labor-friendly Democratic Labor Party claimed the proposed free trade deal would only help big businesses.

U.S. protest leaders said the FTA, if implemented, will take away American jobs, because cheaper South Korean mobile phones, automobiles and other goods will flood the American market.

"America's workers have too much experience with failed agreements like NAFTA," said Thea Lee, a policy director of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, using the acronym of the North American Free Trade Agreement signed between the U.S., Canada and Mexico in 1993.

"The promises are always the same: more jobs, more investment, more economic growth. But the reality is always the same: jobs lost and greater inequality," she said.

Aehwa Kim, an official with the Korean Alliance Against the Korea-U.S. FTA, which organized the Seattle rally, said, "American workers will be just affected as well as Korean by low-paying jobs or unemployment, and the loss of benefits." After the rally, the protesters marched down the streets, making a Buddhist-style bow every three steps. About 30 bicycle-riding police officers escorted them. There were no reports of arrests.

The South Korea-U.S. free trade talks are the first sensitive trade meeting to be held in Seattle since violent protests prompted the cancelation of the opening of World Trade Organization talks in the city in 1999.

Seattle, Sept. 6 (Yonhap News)

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