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Eyewitness Mission: US-Korea Free Trade Agreement

Soya Jung Harris
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007
    “If our voices can’t be heard, what promise is there for democracy? We hold on to a faint hope. If we lose that, we lose our humanity.”

    — Daechuri village leader, Kim Ji-Tae, from prison

Last November, a delegation of 18 people from the United States and Colombia traveled to South Korea on an Eyewitness Mission to observe the conditions facing Korean workers and farmers. The delegation included longtime labor and community organizers, students, and anti-war activists. The weeklong mission allowed delegates to participate in mass demonstrations against free trade and militarism on the Korean peninsula, including a general strike on November 15 involving 200,000 workers throughout South Korea.

More than 13 years after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the broken promise of free trade policies to deliver increased social and economic progress should be clear to anyone who is paying attention. In 2003, the Economic Policy Institute reported that NAFTA had destroyed nearly 880,000 jobs in the United States and led to rising income inequality, lower wages and benefits, and weaker organizing and collective bargaining powers for US workers. In Mexico, NAFTA has decimated some 1.5 million farming jobs, forced previously salaried workers into informal jobs like street vending and restaurant work, and decreased overall wages and worker protections.

South Korean workers and farmers are part of the growing legions of people who are resisting neoliberal policies worldwide. In June 2006, negotiations began for a US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which would be the largest free trade agreement (FTA) since NAFTA. A US-Korea FTA would deepen the injustices already facing Korean workers and farmers as a result of structural adjustments implemented following the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s.

Following the public protest suicide of farmer Lee Kyung-hae during the 2003 World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial in Cancun, the pressures on small farmers struggling to preserve their livelihoods in South Korea have deepened. Two more farmers have committed suicide in response to South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun’s neoliberal reforms, which include a decision in November 2005 to open up the country’s rice market for the first time.

Trade union repression has also intensified. Today, more than 56 percent of workers in South Korea are “irregular” workers hired under temporary employment status with no job security or labor protections. Close to 100 trade unionists are in prison just for exercising their rights to organize, to collectively bargain, and to strike. In March 2006, the government declared the Korean Government Employee’s Union (KGEU), an illegal organization. And in December 2006, following waves of massive protests against the US-Korea FTA negotiations, the South Korean police banned all future anti-FTA protests.

Threat of war

The people of Korea also face a dangerous new US military plan called “strategic flexibility,” which will shift US forces in South Korea (USFK) from a defensive to an offensive posture and facilitate US military strikes by air, sea, and land. The plan calls for the consolidation and expansion of US military bases in South Korea, including the relocation of US troops from Seoulto Pyeongtaek.

The Pyeongtaek relocation and expansion involves the forced displacement of 500 households from the small farming villages of Daechuri and Doduri, to make way for an $11 billion investment into new military weaponry, housing, and a golf course for military personnel. The rationale for “strategic flexibility” is to better position the US military to respond to new global threats of terror by increasing its capability for rapid deployment in the Asia-Pacific region. But the reality is that using South Korea as a new staging area for military offensives will only increase the threat of war in the region.

For nearly 30 consecutive months, Pyeongtaek farmers have held nightly candlelight vigils to protest the base expansion. Most of them are elderly people in their 60s and 70s. This would be the third forced relocation of the farmers, first under Japanese occupation during World War II, then under the US military before and during the Korean War. Last spring, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) descended upon the small village of Daechuri with thousands of military police and with backhoes, threatening to raze homes as villagers chained themselves to their rooftops in defiant resistance. MND personnel erected barbed wire on newly seeded fields and destroyed the elementary school—which had been lovingly and painstakingly built by the villagers themselves.

Today, more than 90 homes have been destroyed. Triple razor wire fencing prevents farmers from accessing their farmlands. More than 800 people have been arrested, and over 1,000 have been injured by the police. Those arrested include Kim Ji-Tae, a village leader who was sentenced to two years in prison and recently released after Amnesty International declared him to be a prisoner of conscience.

Movement undeterred

Participants in the Eyewitness Mission to South Korea had the opportunity to meet with Korean movement organizations representing trade unions, farmers, and progressive lawmakers. Delegates visited the Pyeongtaek farmers on the evening of their 811th candlelight vigil and spoke with the farmers at length about the history of their struggle, their current conditions, and the prospects for stopping the base expansion.

Upon returning to the United States and Colombia, eyewitness delegates heard reports of increased repression against the Korean people’s movement, including arrest warrants for dozens of movement leaders. Still, the strength of the movement remained undiminished, with 30,000 turning out on December 6 in various cities to protest the fifth round of FTA negotiations. At the time of the writing of this article, nine progressive members of the South Korean Assembly are on a hunger strike to protest the sixth round of talks. To date, Korean and US trade negotiators have been plagued by consistent protests at every round of negotiations—in Seoul, Seattle, and DC, as well as on the tiny island of Jeju, South Korea, and at a remote ski resort in Big Sky, Montana. A series of actions is currently being planned for the seventh round of talks, which will likely take place the week of February 12 in Washington DC.

And while the US and South Korean governments have announced a five-year delay in the Pyeongtaek base expansion, this is not nearly enough to appease the Pyeongtaek farmers, who demand nothing less than a complete renegotiation of the base expansion—a demand supported by 80 percent of the Korean people.

Despite ongoing efforts to silence the people’s movement, South Korea continues to be a critical arena for the global struggle against neoliberalism, and toward democracy, peace, and human rights.

Soya Jung Harris is a member of Sahng-nok-su, a Seattle-based group of Koreans and Korean Americans dedicated to the global fight for social and economic justice. She is also a member of Korean Americans Against War And Neoliberalism (KAWAN), a national coalition of organizations united to fight the US-Korea FTA and the military base expansion in Pyeongtaek.