S Korea, US FTA opposed

Seoul, February 2:

Korean farmers opposed to their country entering a free trade agreement with the United States disrupted a public hearing on the issue today, while the South Korean trade minister in Washington praised the plan for its benefits to the domestic economy.

“We are pursuing the agreement with a firm belief that it is ultimately in the national interest,” South Korean trade minister Kim Hyun-chong said yesterday in Washington, according to Yonhap news agency. An announcement in Washington on an agreement to open the free trade talks was expected today.

Kim Jong-hoon, a high-ranking foreign ministry official, said that he expected the trade talks to begin this week “if things go smoothly.” Trade Minister Kim urged South Koreans to think of the positive aspects of opening its market, noting the country lives off its exports.

However, he noted there were ‘sensitive products’ for which Seoul would request exceptions in a free trade deal. Tariff protection for farmers is a highly sensitive issue in South Korea, and the prospect of the talks has fueled emotions. Last year, farmers staged violent protests against moves to lower trade barriers to the domestic rice market, a move they fear will wipe out their livelihoods.

Underscoring domestic opposition, about a dozen farmers stormed a stage at a Seoul meeting hosted by the ministry of foreign affairs and trade.