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Report Back from the Press Conference Against U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement

On June 7, 2006, against the backdrop of the nation's capitol, prominent Korean leaders representing farmers, trade unions, and peasants addressed a packed balcony of press and congressional staffers, voicing their opposition to the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Standing behind the Korean leaders were several dozen Korean farmers and trade unionists and Korean-American activists in their gray "Stop the FTA!" tee-shirts and orange and black bandanas. The scene was powerful: on the steps of the Nation's capitol where the Korea-US FTA will be decided, were working Korean people who traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean and the United States to voice their concerns.

On the Cannon Terrace of the Cannon House Building, the Oakland Institute and the Korea Policy Institute teamed up with Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to organize this press conference on the impact of a Korea-US FTA on the working poor in Korea. The briefing was well-attended by the press and generated media coverage in the Associated Press, Inter Press Service, Congressional Quarterly, and numerous Korean media outlets such as Korean Broadcasting Service (KBS), Seoul Broadcasting Service, and Chosun Daily News, among others.

The briefing started with a warm and fiery welcome from Representative Kucinich who walked up to the Cannon Terrace with South Korean National Assembly Member Kang Ki Kab, a longtime farmer and pro-democracy activist. Together, they read a joint statement in English and in Korean, about their determination as legislators to stop the FTA that will further push neoliberalization and erode the human rights of workers and farmers in both nations. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, senior ranking woman democrat in the House, joined the press briefing to share words of wisdom about the lessons of trade deals that represent special interests and the elite. Congresswoman Barbara Lee from Oakland, California sent a statement of solidarity. Her statement read: "I applaud today's participants for being proactive in their advocacy. Labor, environmental, health care, national sovereignty and other standards simply cannot be sacrificed for the profit of a small minority." The legislators then fielded questions from the press corps. Christine Ahn, Fellow at the Oakland Institute, then explained why the Oakland Institute and the Korea Policy Institute teamed up to organize this press conference.

She was followed by Dr. Thomas Kim, Executive Director of the Korea Policy Institute and professor at Scripps College, who provided some context of US-Korea relations against which the FTA is being negotiated. "Policy differences between the governments, particularly in their approaches to Korean unification and the North Korean nuclear crisis, have led to considerable tension between Washington and Seoul during the Bush Administration. The American president is widely unpopular in South Korea, as is the US-led war on Iraq. South Korea has not seen any evidence that the deployment of Korean troops to Iraq has influenced Washington to take a more flexible posture toward resolving tensions with North Korea."

Dr. Kim was then followed by Oh Jong Ryul, the head of the national delegation of the Korean Alliance Against the Korea-US FTA. Then Kim Tae-Il, General Secretary of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), addressed the press. "The KCTU, alongside, American labor groups will fight for the promotion of workers’ rights in both countries and will jointly raise pending labor issues, including labor laws and basic labor rights. In particular, we will put forward the issues of securing the basic labor rights for non-standard, irregular workers and migrant workers serious problems arising in both countries."

South Korean farmer Lee Heung Se, Vice-Chairman, Korean Advanced Farmers Federation, was next. He said, "We have not forgotten the sacrifice of the martyr Lee Kyung Hae who killed himself to defend our agricultural industry and the livelihood of our fishermen and farmers in Mexico in September 2003. We, the 3.5 million farmers of our country, carry on his spirit and will block at all costs the US-Korea FTA that threatens to ruin not only our farms but also our national economy we have grown with our sweat and blood."

Lee Heung Se went on to testify how "although exports and the national income have risen in South Korea, it has done so without any corresponding growth in the income of everyday Korean people. Put simply, no matter how much exports increase, the lives of workers, common people, and owners of small to medium businesses have not and will not improve. Only large export-oriented corporations stand to profit."

Lee Heung Se was followed by Lee Kang Sil of the women's delegation who is also the co-chair of the National Movement to Stop the FTA from Cholla-buk do, Korea. She testified how signing this FTA would create more irregular workers, placing heavy burdens on Korean women in their efforts to survive and help their families survive.

The Korean delegation was supported by American allies including Chris Townsend of the United Electrical Workers and Kathy Ozer of the National Family Farm Coalition.

Resistance to the FTA from the Korean civil society is understandable and will grow in the months to come. As National Assembly member Kang Ki Kap said, "Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the government's draft negotiation proposal is the promulgation of a legal system that would guarantee US corporations the right to sue the South Korean government for public policies that are considered barriers to trade. This means that Korea's many hard-won environmental and labor laws could be eliminated overnight, including the end of Korea's minimum wage and social services."