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Tens of Thousands in S. Korea Protest Trade Plan

`This is life and death for us,' one farmer says as U.S. negotiators hold talks on the agreement.

July 13, 2006|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — In the vintage style of noisy South Korean protests, tens of thousands of people wearing red bandannas filled the plaza in front of City Hall on Wednesday, banging drums and chanting in opposition to a proposed free trade pact with the United States.

The protests took place as U.S. and South Korean negotiators met under heavy security at a hotel in a second round of talks on the pact. Police estimated the crowd at 70,000, a turnout that probably would have been larger if not for torrential rains.

The pact would be the largest such agreement by trade volume since the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented in 1994, and accordingly the protests have turned the South Korean capital into the latest front line in the struggle over globalization.

Polls show a slight majority of Koreans in favor of the deal, and there are fears among supporters that their voices will be drowned out in the din of demonstrations.

"This is life and death for us," said Chang Seok-cheol, a 46-year-old rice farmer who was leading a group from South Chungcheong province. "We have vowed to do whatever it takes to stop this pact."

"You better watch out or we'll send another Taepodong," added another farmer in the group, referring to one of the missiles launched by North Korea this month. He was whisked away by his colleagues before he could give his name.

The atmosphere for the trade talks is complicated by tension over the missile tests as well as by a presidential election here next year. Wendy Cutler, the chief U.S. negotiator for the talks, said she still believed the timing was right for the pact with South Korea.

"There is never really a convenient time for trade negotiations. There is always something going on in the world that raises issues," Cutler said in an interview this week with a small group of journalists.

South Korean labor activists are famous for their spectacular demonstrations, which have included public suicides and petitions written in blood from sliced-off fingertips. At a trade conference in Hong Kong in December, police arrested hundreds of South Korean farmers, some of whom tried to swim across the harbor to reach the protest site.

The free trade agreement would have the greatest effect in prying open South Korea's markets for U.S. beef, rice and automobiles. South Korea is the United States' seventh-largest trading partner.

Many of the demonstrators opposed to the pact appeared to be middle-aged and older trade unionists and farmers.

In a Starbucks overlooking City Hall, Kim Hye-uk, a 27-year-old Web designer, said that he and most of his friends supported the deal.

"It will make us more innovative in the long term. It will be an incentive to reform," Kim said.

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