Lawmakers on hunger strike to protect farmers’ jobs
by Theresa Kim Hwa-young
Farmers and lawmakers fear trade liberalisation would kill thousands of jobs in industry but especially in agriculture.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – Some Korean law makers have gone on a hunger strike against a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. Since Tuesday nine MPs from the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) have stopped eating demanding the government end negotiations with Washington. They feat fear any FTA with the Americans would cause major job losses

The DLP’s Roh Hoe-chan said 213,721 of the country's 215,880 rice farmers would be unemployed if Seoul agrees to fully open its rice market. Another 20,000 farmers involved in other activities would also lose their job.

According to a report by US-based Institute for International Economics (IIE), 27,633 rice farmers would lose their jobs even if rice were excluded from the FTA. Some 116,700 people in other primary products industries would face unemployment, it said, that includes about 6,500 workers in the automobile industry and 46,600 in the electronic equipment industry.

The same report said however that Korea would benefit in the medium term from the FTA by US$ 20 billion if rice were excluded and by US$ 27 billion if it were included. It predicted gains of US$ 41 billion or US$ 51 billion, depending on whether rice was included, in the long term. According to the model, the US stood to benefit more from the FTA if rice was excluded.

For Rep Roh the “IIE report clearly shows the Korea-US FTA will ruin a huge number of South Koreans' lives. The South Korean government should immediately stop the negotiation”.

The protest began on the first day of the sixth round of talks in Seoul. Some members of the ruling Uri party like Rep Kim Tae-hong and Im Jong-in have come out in support of the hunger strikers.  The DLP and many civic groups have also held massive street rallies to discourage the FTA.

South Korean farmers are opposed to liberalising trade in food products, which the World Trade Organisation requires, because their products would not survive foreign competition. They demand the government maintain tariffs against imports or provide subsidies the way the United States and the European Union do.

Roh has also objected to the South Korean government’s decision to accept four preconditions like easier US beef imports and less stringent movie screen quotas before talks could resume. Government officials responded saying that the government had to accept these preconditions if it wanted to restart negotiations.

Both countries are under pressure to wrap up the talks by the end of March because the US is required to present a deal to the Congress for a three-month review under George W. Bush's trade promotion authority (TPA), which runs out on July 1. Under the TPA the Congress has to vote for or against a deal without making amendments, therefore speeding up the process of approving trade agreements.

Trade between South Korea and the United States was about US$ 70 billion in 2005 and bilateral services trade totalled US$ 14 billion in 2004.

Agriculture accounts for only 3.5 per cent of total two-way trade, down from 5 per cent in 2003 when the ban on US beef exports came into effect.