Wednesday, January 17, 2007

South Koreans Protest Trade Deal with US

Thousands of South Koreans took to the streets of Seoul on Tuesday to denounce bilateral trade talks with the United States as negotiators from the two economic giants struggled to reach a deal.

South Korean and U.S. envoys began their latest round of negotiations on Monday on a free trade agreement (FTA), which some studies show could add about $20 billion to the annual $72 billion worth of bilateral trade.

But Tuesday's rallies were largely peaceful, unlike the violent protests last July -- the last time the talks were held in the South Korean capital.

Protesters argue that the proposed agreement would mean job losses and ruin South Korea's heavily protected farming industry.

"South Korean farmers will not be able to survive if the FTA takes effect," said Kim Han-chul, a farm activist who joined about 4,000 protesters who blocked a downtown street and carried banners reading: "Ban imports of diseased U.S. beef".

South Korea has balked at U.S. demands to include sensitive farm products, such as rice, in their trade talks. Other sticking points include U.S. calls to open South Korea's market more for its cars and medical products and U.S. anti-dumping duties that South Korea believes are often unfairly applied to its products.

The talks got off to a shaky start with South Korea halting formal working groups in key areas of U.S. concern, including automobiles and pharmaceuticals, leaving chief negotiators Wendy Cutler and Kim Jong-hoon to hash them out informally.

The two sides want to strike a deal early this year before legislation expires on June 30 that allows the White House to negotiate agreements that lawmakers can reject but not amend.

The same law requires the White House to notify Congress 90 days before signing any agreement, meaning it needs to have a final deal with Seoul by the end of March.

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