Page last updated at 23:09 GMT, Wednesday, 14 May 2008 00:09 UK

Koreans fight free trade deal

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Beef farmer's Free Trade Agreement concerns

By Linda Duffin
BBC World Service business reporter, Seoul, South Korea

Korean protestors

The issue of beef imports has become a crucial symbol of opposition to a free trade deal that the Korean government has negotiated with the US.

Thousands of young people have been gathering every night in Korea's capital, Seoul, staging a candlelit vigil against the free trade deal.

They have been there nearly every night for the last week, occupying one of the capital's main squares.

They sit in the streets on neatly folded newspapers, filling every road leading up to the busy intersection, while slogans are being belted out on a public address system.

Police stand-off

The streets around the area have been packed with buses full of riot police.

So far, the police have been sitting it out just like the protesters.

There has been no violence, but the mood is angry and it has been having an effect on the government.

This week, South Korea had planned to resume quarantine inspections on more than 5,000 tonnes of US beef which have been languishing in storage at the country's ports since last October.

But now the government has announced it will delay the resumption of US beef imports, in the face of mounting public concern over the safety of the product.

"I think we need a week to 10 days," Korean Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun told parliament.

Top importer

Korea, once one of the top three importers of US beef, banned the product in 2003 after an outbreak in America of BSE, or mad cow disease.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (file image)
President Lee favours free trade and economic reform

The row rumbled on until last month, when South Korea's new president Lee Myung-bak made a state visit to the US and was told Congress would refuse to ratify a crucial Free Trade Agreement until beef imports were resumed.

He agreed, but the decision has led to a plunge in his popularity back home, where a US-linked mad cow scare is sweeping the country.

One locally-conducted opinion poll suggests that 78% of Koreans think US beef is unsafe.

Most of the protesters taking to the streets are students and in this techno-savvy nation, they are swapping information via the internet and mobile phone text messages.

The country is alive with rumours - that drugs and cosmetics and babies' nappies could contain BSE-infected products, or that that Koreans have a gene that makes them more susceptible to CJD, the human form of mad cow disease.

Caving into pressure

Government assurances that US beef is safe and that reports of its dangers are grossly distorted are falling on deaf ears.

Korean farmers protest at WTO in Hong Kong
Korean farmers have been protesting free trade deals around the world

Although there have been only three reported cases of BSE in the United States, public alarm here has reached such a peak that South Korean newspapers are reporting that food distributors, schools and restaurants plan to boycott US beef.

But there is more to this controversy than the health scare or the widespread public perception that President Lee caved in to US demands over the Free Trade Agreement.

Farmers under threat

Korean farmers say it threatens their livelihoods.

An employee prepares imported US beef at a shop in Seoul, 13 July, 2007
South Korea suspended most US beef imports after concerns about BSE

Two hours' drive south of Seoul is a beef farm run by Lee In-sai.

He started out when he left agricultural college 20 years ago with one cow.

Now he has built up a herd of 250 animals.

But he wonders how long he and his fellow farmers can keep going.

Standing beside his cows and their calves, a local breed called Hanwoo, he says:

"The Free Trade Agreement means we have more competition and to be competitive we've had to expand our farms. That means we've had to take out loans, expand the facilities, buy more cows - a very difficult situation.

"On top of that, grain prices have gone up and so have fuel prices. The government should raise the price of beef to compensate, but the price of beef has been going down, which makes things very hard for farmers.

"This is the sort of situation that drives farmers to suicide."

Economic benefits

South Korea has signed free trade agreements with the United States and Europe, but they have yet to be ratified.

And although the farming sector might suffer, the government believes the rest of the South Korean economy could reap big benefits.

It seems to have been taken by surprise by the strength of the public reaction.

A Hyundai Genesis
Korea wants to ensure it can continue to export its cars to the US

Hyun Jung-taik, president of the government's economic policy think-tank, the Korea Development Institute, says:

"There is a very irrational, emotional reaction on the part of the Korean general public. It is a pity, I think. We have to go through this ratification of the Free Trade Agreement soon and it is really very essential."

Deal-breaker

And the US farm lobby is equally keen to get the deal ratified.

The US Department of Agriculture says it is potentially the most significant trade agreement for the sector in 15 years.

The US government says US beef is safe and the deal is based on sound science.

American producers, meanwhile, accuse Korean farmers of protectionism.

Opposition politicians in South Korea continue to lobby for changes to the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, and the Korean government has now promised to suspend US beef imports if there is any new outbreak of BSE in the United States.

But few people doubt the free trade deal will eventually be ratified by Korea, whose economy depends on exports.

Although the Bush administration says it is committed to implementing the deal this year, with a Presidential election imminent in the US, and a Democratic Congress, that is looking increasingly unlikely.


SEE ALSO
South Korea relaxes US beef ban
18 Apr 08 |  Business
South Korea's GNP wins majority
09 Apr 08 |  Asia-Pacific
US and S Korea agree trade deal
02 Apr 07 |  Business
Beef row imperils US-Korea trade
02 Feb 07 |  Business
Country profile: South Korea
11 Apr 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: South Korea
11 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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