South Korean police brace for mass protests against US free trade deal

Original Publication Date: 
19 November, 2006

South Korean police said Tuesday they are bracing for mass protests across the country against a proposed free trade agreement with the United States.

A coalition of civic groups has called for street protests every Wednesday for three straight weeks, starting November 22, to urge an end to the negotiations.

The protest is expected to draw a total of 71,000 people in Seoul and 12 provincial cities, the Korean Alliance against the Korea-US FTA said.

Some 5,000 people are expected to rally outside City Hall in Seoul and march through the city centre late Wednesday, a National Police Agency official told AFP.

"We plan to mobilize some 7,800 riot police in Seoul alone to prevent the protest from turning violent," he said.

The Korean Alliance against the Korea-US FTA, a coalition of anti-globalization groups, urged people to display banners, attach bumper stickers and sign petitions.

In its "action guidelines" it also asked South Koreans to join a boycott of US beef, which it says is being imported despite fears over mad cow disease.

The group urged importers, distributors, restaurants and schools not to buy or consume US beef.

President Roh Moo-Hyun's government has been pushing for the free trade pact despite strong opposition from farmers, workers and other activists who fear for their incomes and jobs.

In the last mass protests in July riot police used water cannon as some 70,000 people, including 13,000 farmers, rallied in downtown Seoul.

After a fourth round of talks last month in the South Korean resort island of Jeju, both sides expressed hope for an eventual deal even though the lengthy negotiations will drag on into next year.

A fifth round is scheduled for December in the United States and a sixth in South Korea in January.

The negotiations on what would be the biggest US free-trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement must end well before President George W. Bush's Trade Promotion Authority expires on June 30.

The deal allows him to fast-track an accord through a Congress now controlled by Democrats, who have historically been more suspicious of free trade deals than the Republicans.

South Korea, Asia's fourth-largest economy, is the seventh-biggest trading partner of the US. Two-way trade reached 72 billion dollars last year.