A New Fast Track For Unfair Trade
February 08, 2007
Christine Ahn is a policy analyst with the Korea Policy Institute and Oakland Institute and a member of the Korean Americans for Fair Trade coalition.
Trade representatives from the United States and South Korea are racing against the clock to sign the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement under the “fast track” deadline. With $72 billion dollars traded annually between the two countries, the KorUS FTA would become the second largest trade deal after the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While such a trade deal would normally sail through the halls of the U.S. Congress and the Korean National Assembly, times have changed since the first free-trade regimes rolled into Washington, D.C., and Seoul.
Critics of unfettered trade have had over a decade of evidence revealing how NAFTA has devastated the lives of working people across the continent. In the 2006 midterm elections, 37 members of Congress were elected on a fair-trade platform, ousting pro-free trade incumbents. Newly elected Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia even took the opportunity on primetime national television to challenge the Washington consensus on trade. In response to President Bush’s State of the Union address, Webb said that America's workers should ''expect, rightly, that in this age of globalization, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace.''
Congress granted President Bush fast track, also known as Trade Promotion Authority, to speed the negotiation of trade agreements; in return, legislators are given 90 days to review the proposed deal before they vote up or down. As this authority will expire on July 1, U.S. and Korean trade representativess will meet in Washington for three days beginning February 11 in a frenzied attempt to smooth over colossal differences in order to come up with an agreement by April 2. Wall Street corporations and South Korean chaebols (trading conglomerates) are salivating at this trade deal that would lower their tariffs and increase their profits.
Given the effects of NAFTA on America’s manufacturing workers and Mexico’s farmers, free traders can no longer simply tout the miracles of neoliberal economics. According to the Economic Policy Institute, since NAFTA took effect, over 1 million workers in the U.S. lost their high-paying manufacturing jobs, and were forced to take lower-paying service jobs where they now earn 23 percent less. U.S. workers without a college education—73 percent of the population—saw their wages drop by 13 percent since NAFTA took effect.
But NAFTA’s impact is even more apparent in Mexico where real wages dropped by 80 percent and unemployment rose from nine to 15 percent. Approximately 1.5 million Mexican farmers were forced to give up farming because they were unable to meet the price of corn produced by massively-subsidized U.S. agribusinesses. Undersold and without many other job options in a depressed economy, Mexican farmers sought low-wage work in the maquiladoras or risked the dangerous journey to cross the heavily militarized U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico, where maize originated, is now facing riots by its people over high tortilla prices because the growing demand for ethanol have inflated corn prices on the global market. These are the effects of NAFTA that free traders must address when they espouse the limitless benefits of an integrated continental economy.
Seeing the devastation that a U.S. FTA has wreaked on Mexican peasants, Korean farmers are not about to wait for U.S. rice—the most subsidized crop in the world—to flood the Korean market. According to Dr. Ki-woong Lee, Chairman of the Agriculture Economic Department at Sunchon National University, the KorUS FTA would be a death knell for up to 140,000 Korean farmers.
Free traders argue that reducing tariffs would level the playing field and increase the efficiency of producers. But Korean and American farms are not just leagues apart, they’re constellations apart. From 1995 to 2005, the U.S. rice industry received over $10.5 billion dollars in government subsidies, and the lion’s share—25 percent—went to the top one percent of rice growers. In the U.S., the average rice farm is 397 acres, compared with South Korea’s average rice farm of 3.5 acres. Approximately 8,000 of America’s two million farms grow rice, compared with South Korea, where over 787,000 farms—or 57 percent—cultivate rice.
South Korean farmers make up just eight percent of the population, but they are highly visible, well-organized and able to sway popular opinion. The three largest department stores in South Korea—Lotte, Hyundai and Shinsegae—have decided against purchasing imported rice and serving it to consumers for fear of public backlash against their chains.
The state-run Korean Advertising Review Board blocked an ad by farmers and film makers opposing the FTA from being aired, saying that it was unfairly biased against the South Korean government. Meanwhile, President Roh's Committee to Support the Conclusion of the Korea-U.S. FTA freely broadcast a $3.8 million propaganda ad. After over 100,000 peasants, farmers and workers took to the streets last November in protest, the government instituted a ban against public FTA protests. They have deployed thousands of police to use physical violence, including water cannons, against protestors, raided local offices of civic organizations, detained 19 leaders of farmers' and workers' organizations and issued summons and warrants for 170 leaders.
Politicians advocating the FTA are promoting the trade deal as an opportunity to mend bridges between the U.S. and South Korea at a time of heightened strained relations between the two countries. Washington and Seoul have diverged on their approaches to Korean reunification and the North Korean nuclear crisis, which, in tandem with other factors, has prompted a rise in anti-American sentiment in South Korea. One of the pre-conditions that President Roh agreed upon was to lift the ban on U.S. beef instituted in 2003 with the discovery of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). Last December, he allowed for the import of boneless beef, which has prompted 70 percent of Korean housewives in their 30s and 40s to say that they “won’t buy” U.S. beef. The FTA is big news in South Korea, and the majority of Koreans are opposed to the FTA. A July 2006 poll found that 62 percent opposed the FTA. A popular image on placards at anti-FTA protests is one of Uncle Sam holding a chained Korean peasant on his knees with the caption "Koreans are enslaved to American beef."
South Koreans have become a vital force in the global justice movement through their highly visible demonstrations at WTO protests. They brought global media attention to the desperate struggle facing peasants and workers under neoliberal globalization when peasant leader Lee Kyung Hae stabbed himself in the heart at the 2003 WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico while wearing a sign saying, "The WTO Kills Farmers."
If a trade deal is signed next week, Congress has an opportunity to vote it down. Social movements in South Korea and the United States must ensure that Congress is not reading outdated rhetoric claiming the limitless benefits of free capital. Now elected officials—seeing the new faces in Congress—must be held accountable to the anger and frustration felt by middle and working class people who see their security dwindling to further line the pockets of white-collar business executives.