Monday, February 12, 2007

Korea US FTA: Round 7

Well, round 7 of the Korea US FTA negotiations are starting in Washington.

The government has promised to get the negotiations through by April, so look for some last minute compromises to come out of these late rounds that allow the Korean negotiators to save face. Seems concessions have been made (by Korea's negotiators -- who should perhaps be working for the other team it seems from most of the media reports, as they've done everything possible to weaken their positions) on almost all important areas except for rice and products made in the north korean industrial zone. The former will be the clincher, I suppose.

As usual protests here have been banned (though 3-5000 showed up to a rally in downtown Seoul this weekend). Thus, I'd like to reprint a section from the latest newsletter by the Korean Alliance against the FTA spelling out the anti-democratic nature of the negotiations.

The Undemocratic Character of the FTA Negotiations Process

On February 2, 2006, South Korea and the U.S. announced that they would begin negotiations for a free trade agreement. From the start, however, the negotiation process and the content of the FTA have caused great concerns in labor, agriculture, and civil society sectors in both the U.S. and South Korea. Apart from critiques that the FTA will mean a loss of jobs for farmers and workers and increased social polarization, the manner in which the negotiations have been carried out has sparked rising anger. Indeed, the negotiations have proceeded in a highly undemocratic manner amidst repressive conditions since even before they officially began

Four Preconditions


Before the start of official FTA negotiations the United States required that South Korea commit to four preliminary measures as preconditions for talks to begin. These included 1) suspension of regulations on pharmaceutical products, 2) easing of government regulations of gas emissions from imported U.S. cars, 3) resumption of U.S. beef imports, and 4) reduction of the quota which requires South Korean cinemas to screen South Korean films from 146 to 73 days per year. While the actual implementation of each of these measures is in different stages, what is of concern here, apart from the United States' unilateral and imposing attitude, is that the South Korean government agreed to them completely without public dialogue, and reported about them deceitfully to the Korean people. For a long time government authorities even denied the possibility that these sensitive issues would be involved in preconditions for FTA negotiations. In a representative case, only two days before the screen quota reduction was announced, Trade Minister Hyun-chong Kim insisted that there was no plan for such a reduction, denying the need for further discussion with representatives of the film industry.

Access to Information and Public Debate

Lack of disclosure and insufficient public debate have been trends throughout the negotiations, inconsistent not only with democratic spirit but also with South Korean law. For example, the presidential directive concerning the pursuit of FTAs requires that a public hearing be called before negotiations ensue. Such hearings are meant to be forums for discussion through which the opinions of Korean civilians are taken into consideration. Steps taken to meet this directive were a pure formality: only one public hearing was called for February 2, 2006, just hours before the formal announcement that the US and Korea would begin talks was made. Given that the decision had already been reached, the hearing was obviously not really a space for public discussion. Report that the official announcement would be made the following day drew an angry reaction from the audience, resulting in a suspension of the hearing.
Despite South Korean chief negotiator Jong-hoon Kim's promise that greater effort would be made to seek public opinion, no further hearings have occurred. Rather, the government has routinely ignored appeals from stakeholders and citizens who have criticisms of the FTA. In addition, the government has refused to disclose relevant information including the draft of the agreement and the specific results of each round of negotiations. Even National Assembly members have had very limited access: the reports they receive are generally only as detailed as those released to the media, and the time allowed to review these English-language documents is restricted to the same length as that usually allocated for Korean-language materials.
On top of this, both the U.S. and South Korean governments have gone out of their way to keep much of the talks removed from public view. This began when the 4th round of talks were scheduled to be held on Jaeju Island and continued with the 5th round held at a remote sky resort in Montana. Following, senior-level meetings held secretly in Hawaii between the 5th and 6th official fueled Korean citizens' distrust for the negotiations process as a whole. Indeed, the secretive and undemocratic manner in which the government is moving forward is one of the important reasons behind opposition to the FTA.

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

Even more disturbing than the lack of public disclosure is the extent to which the South Korean government has gone to suppress anti-FTA sentiment. This was plainly evident earlier this year, when farmers' and filmmakers' organizations attempted to run a television advertisement entitled, "A Letter from One's Hometown" which included images of farmers expressing their opposition to the FTA. Upon reviewing the ad, the Korean Advertising Review Board (KARB) stipulated that the farmers' comments had to be erased before broadcasting, effectively prohibiting the ad from screening. The KARB made its decision on the basis that the comments gave a "one-sided portrayal of a dispute involving a government agency." Ironically, while "A Letter from One's Hometown" was barred, a $3.8 million government-produced ad aired. It is clear that the ad's main statement—"the Korea-U.S. FTA is a new opportunity for South Korea to leap into the position of a great economic power"—does not capture the full range of public sentiment, which is split roughly in half for and against the FTA. However, as a government production, this ad was not reviewed by the KARB and therefore not required to meet their conditions on objectivity. The contradiction in the two cases has invoked criticisms from citizens groups and specialists in the field, even those within the national Korean Broadcasting Commission, who see the incident an undue closure of public debate at a time when more is needed and an a violation of freedom of expression inconsistent with the standards of a modern democracy.

Severe restrictions have also been placed on peaceful protest. The government routinely deploys thousands of police to contain demonstrations, often violently. Limits have been especially intense since last November, when the government used the excuse of a clash between farmers and police to place a complete ban further protest. Since then all demonstrations have been outlawed with checkpoints set up on major roads leading to Seoul, to stop regional farmers and workers from entering the capital. The police have issued summons and warrants for over 170 people, raided the local offices of peasant and civil society organizations, made threatening phone calls to demonstration participants, entered their relatives' houses seeking arrest, and detained 21 leaders of farmers and workers organization in an attempt to stop future opposition. It is plainly evident that the incident on November 22, which was neither wide-spread nor premeditated, does not warrant these extreme measures taken in its wake.
The excessive imprisonment of civil society leaders and ban on peaceful protest is inconsistent with the rights to freedom of expression and assembly enshrined in both the South Korean and United States constitutions. This was confirmed by the National Human Rights Commission on December 5, which called for all possible measures to be taken to enable peaceful protests to go forward the following day, including the withdrawal of the demonstration ban. Yet, despite this statement, the government and police have continued their efforts to shut down protests and silence opposition. The undemocratic nature of the negotiations process is one testimony to the fact the South Korean government is trying to push through a highly unpopular deal without concern for the interests the Korean people.

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