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FREE TRADE IS OVER (IF THE PEOPLE WANT IT TO BE)

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OAKLAND, Feb 2 2007 (IPS) - The US and South Korea are working around the clock to sign the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KorUS FTA), which would become the second largest trade deal after NAFTA, writes Christine Ahn, a policy analyst with the Korea Policy Institute and Oakland Institute and a member of the Korean Americans for Fair Trade coalition. In this article, Ahn writes that Wall Street corporations and South Korean chaebols are salivating at the opportunity to increase their portion of 72 billion dollars in business the two countries trade annually. Normally, such a trade deal would breeze through the halls of the US Congress and the Korean National Assembly. But times have changed. The public discourse on free trade is no longer just about the ability of corporations to move their capital freely across borders. It\’s about the anger and frustration of middle and working class people who see their security dwindling to further line the pockets of white-collar business executives. That anger can then express itself during elections, ousting officials mired in the rhetoric of the last century. Free trade is over, and hopefully the social justice movements in the United States will unite with the energising movements in South Korea to stop this antiquated regime.

Trade representatives will meet from February 11 to 14 in Washington, DC, in a frenzied attempt to smooth over colossal differences in order to come up with an agreement by April 2. That is a hard and fast deadline if the KorUS FTA is to be passed under the 2002 Trade Promotion Authority, which expires on July 1, 2007. This ”fast track” law allows the President to speedily negotiate trade agreements, which Congress, with just 90 days to review, must vote up or down.

Normally, such a trade deal would breeze through the halls of the US Congress and the Korean National Assembly. But times have changed since the free-trade regime rolled into town in Washington, DC, and in Seoul. In the 2006 US mid-term elections, 30 new members of the House of Representatives and seven new members of the Senate were elected on a fair-trade platform. After the president’s State of the Union address, newly-elected Senator Jim Webb gave the Democratic response, saying that America’s workers should ”expect, rightly, that in this age of globalisation, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace.”

And now the critics of free trade can point to over a decade of devastating results for the working poor in the United States and in Mexico caused by NAFTA. Since NAFTA took effect, over one million workers in the US lost their high-paying manufacturing jobs, which were sent across the border, and forced to take lower-paying service jobs where they now earn 23% less than they took home before. US workers without a college education (73%) saw their wages drop by 13% since NAFTA.

But those most hurt by the agreement are workers and farmers in Mexico, where real wages dropped by 80% and unemployment rose from 9 to 15% in the past twelve years. This is partially because 1.5 million Mexican farmers were forced off the land by the flood of cheap, highly-subsidised corn from the US Undersold, Mexican farmers sought low-wage work in the maquiladoras, which forced down wages and pushed unemployment upwards.

Seeing the devastation that a US FTA has wreaked on Mexican peasants, Korean farmers are not about to wait for US rice –the most subsidised crop in the world– to flood the Korean market and force 140,000 of them to lose their livelihoods under the KorUS FTA. And they’re not alone. Since negotiations began in February 2006, over 1 million South Koreans have protested the FTA, organising hunger and general strikes.

In response, the South Korean government has used secrecy and severe repression to silence the majority of South Koreans now opposed to the FTA. As a pre-condition to even beginning negotiations, South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun unilaterally accepted to amend four Korean laws to allow US markets access to Korea. When the Korean government finally held a hearing on whether to pursue the FTA, it stopped public comment after 20 minutes because so many people were opposed to it.

The state-run Korean Advertising Review Board blocked an ad by farmers and film makers opposing the FTA from being aired, saying that it was unfairly biased against the South Korean government. Meanwhile, President Roh’s Committee to Support the Conclusion of the Korea-US FTA 3.8 million-dollar propaganda ad has been aired frequently. After over 100,000 peasants, farmers, and workers took to the streets last November in protest, the government instituted a ban against public FTA protests. They have deployed thousands of police to use physical violence and water cannons against protestors, raided local offices of civic organisations, detained 19 leaders of farmers’ and workers’ organisations, and issued summons and warrants for 170 leaders.

Advocates of the FTA are promoting the FTA talks as an opportunity to mend sour relations between the US and South Korea, strained since President Bush assumed office. But instead the Kor-US FTA is fuelling more anti-Americanism there.

The public discourse on free trade is no longer just about the ability of corporations to move their capital freely across borders. It’s about the anger and frustration of middle and working class people who see their security dwindling to further line the pockets of white-collar business executives. That anger can then turn into action in elections, ousting officials mired in the rhetoric of the last century. Free trade is over, and hopefully the social justice movements in the United States will unite with the energising movements in South Korea to stop this antiquated regime. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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