The fifth round of free-trade talks between the United States and South Korea, which commenced Dec. 4 in Big Sky, may have barely registered on most Montanans’ radar, but not so in Korea. In the days leading up to negotiations that both sides hope will result in the United States’ most significant trade agreement since 1994’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), tens of thousands of protesters clashed with police across South Korea. According to The Korea Times, South Korea’s oldest English-language daily newspaper, rallies led by torch-bearing teachers, farmers and union workers burgeoned into violent attacks on public buildings in more than 15 cities nationwide. And as nearly 200 South Korean negotiators touched down in Montana Dec. 2 for a series of dinners and meet-and-greets leading up to the talks, Korean demonstrators defied authorities by carrying out protests planned to coincide with the Montana talks despite police denial of protest permits.
The scene in Bozeman and nearby Big Sky—where about a dozen South Koreans joined 20 or so out-of-state protesters and a few dozen Montana protesters for local vigils and rallies—paled in comparison. Protesters say that’s just what negotiators from both countries hoped to achieve by holding the talks in hard-to-reach backwater.
Sen. Max Baucus, who in January will take over as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which controls trade policy, invited negotiators to his home state partly to fatten up the role that beef will play in the weeklong negotiations.
On Dec. 3, Baucus held a Big Sky press conference in which he smacked his lips around a forkful of Montana steak—saying “delicious” in Korean for the TV cameras—and announced that South Korea won’t get the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) it wants unless the country opens its doors to U.S. beef. The country that used to be the third-largest importer of U.S. beef began declining U.S. imports in 2003 following the mad cow scare. In September, Korea began accepting limited amounts of boneless American beef, but as recently as last week rejected shipments it says failed standards, again straining relations with the U.S. beef industry and its governmental supporters.
Following Baucus’ steak-eating stunt, Korean Ambassador Kim Jong-hoon played down the issue with reporters, saying, “I don’t think the beef matter will make this round of negotiations more difficult because the beef quarantine issue isn’t a subject on the negotiating table,” according to Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
In fact, while the beef brawl may be making headlines and rankling Montana interests, the FTA is about much more than beef.
An FTA between the United States and South Korea, the world’s 10th-largest economy with an annual gross domestic product of nearly $1 trillion, would liberalize all aspects of trade between the two nations. South Korea is already the United States’ seventh-largest trading partner, with two-way trade amounting to about $70 billion per year, according to U.S. trade representative Rob Portman, but substantial tariffs currently prevent expansion.
Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler, lead negotiator for the United States, says the negotiations are elaborately structured: About 200 Korean negotiators and about 100 U.S. negotiators break into 17 groups that represent distinct issues—agriculture, automotive, film, etc.—and are overseen by Cutler and Korean Trade Minister Hyun-chong Kim, her counterpart.
In a Dec. 1 interview, Cutler said the previous four rounds of talks made some headway, but substantial hurdles still remain.
“Basically, in none of the areas have we completed negotiations. But we’ve made more progress in some than in others,” Cutler says. “Agriculture is a very sensitive issue for the Koreans, and at the same time one of our priorities, so we still have a lot of work to do there.”
Despite original hopes to finish negotiations by year’s end, Cutler says the new goal is March; a sixth round of talks is already scheduled for January.
“We have a good shot at doing that, but obviously it will be important to make good progress in the Montana talks,” says Cutler. “We’re not going to rush to conclude a bad deal.”
The push behind the push is the looming June 2007 expiration of President Bush’s Trade Promotion Authority, which restricts Congress to approving or denying FTAs with an up-or-down vote and suspends its amendment powers. That imminent expiration, plus the unclear implications that Congress’ recent turnover could have for the Trade Promotion Authority’s renewal prospects, have spurred the schedule.
Agriculture—specifically, rice—is one of the main concerns driving South Koreans into the streets and propelling activists like New Yorker Yul-san Liem to Montana to organize local protests.
Liem says most South Korean farmers are subsistence rice farmers who fear that lifting trade barriers that now protect them from massive U.S. exports will flood their markets with cheap, corporate products, making it impossible for local farmers to compete. Similar concerns abound in regard to Korea’s film industry and pharmaceutical markets, though agriculture remains the biggest issue, Liem says. While Minister Kim acknowledges the adverse impacts his country’s agricultural sector would suffer under an FTA, he has said the South Korean government plans to spend $119 billion over the next decade to offset farmers’ setbacks.
Protester Dena Hoff, who farms near Glendive on the Yellowstone River and sits on the board of the National Family Farm Coalition, says she’s opposed to FTAs like the one now being negotiated because they pit farmers against farmers. The all-inclusive, nondemocratic approach to FTAs—which covers all trade sectors and is brokered by appointed, not elected officials—mirrors the NAFTA model she says has benefited large corporations at the expense of small farmers and workers. She spoke at the opening rally in Bozeman Dec. 4 because, she says, “We should be willing to stand up and stand shoulder to shoulder with [South Koreans fighting the FTA] while they’re in our state.”
“This method of trade that’s directed at corporate products and ignores the health of rural communities and the needs of workers is morally wrong,” Hoff says. “There are too few winners and so many losers.”