The beef with U.S. beef imports

SOUTH KOREA - The fifth round of negotiations on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KorUS FTA) took place in Montana on Dec. 4 to 8. It is projected to be the largest trade agreement since NAFTA. But critics say the KorUS FTA will economically and socially devastate the lives of millions of workers and farmers in both countries. Imani Henry, Workers World reports.
calendar icon 6 December 2006
clock icon 6 minute read

Koreans protest KorUS FTA at Big Sky resort in Montana, Dec. 4.
Photo: KAWAN
South Korea now ranks as the seventh-largest trading partner of the U.S. If the KorUS FTA passes, U.S. agricultural exports to South Korea will increase more than 200 percent, with other exports increasing by 54 percent. South Korean imports to the U.S., on the other hand, will increase by only 21 percent.

Conditions imposed on this agreement by the U.S. have set off mass protests in South Korea. These U.S. conditions include lifting price controls on pharmaceuticals, which will disproportionately impact the poor and elders; reduction of the film-screen quota, which would impose more U.S. films on Korea and has already spurred some of the first anti-FTA protests by Korean actors; and loosening Korean regulations on auto emissions from imported U.S. cars.

One of the most hotly contested U.S. conditions is the lifting of the 2003 South Korean ban on the importation of U.S. beef, imposed after the outbreak of “mad cow” disease in the U.S.

Since a public announcement about this agreement in February, a bloc between the Korean Alliance Against Korea-U.S. FTA (KoA)—a South Korean coalition of more than 280 organizations—and Korean Americans against War And Neo-liberalism (KAWAN) was formed to mobilize internationally to stop the KorUS FTA. Part of the strategy has been to hound the negotiators by calling week-long protests in cities where the talks are being held.

When the first round of talks was held in June in Washington, D.C., farmers, workers and anti-war activists from South Korea joined with labor unionists and anti-globalization activists from the U.S. to hold protest marches and other actions against the KorUS FTA.

Protests against the second round of talks in July in Seoul, South Korea, brought out over 100,000 people into the streets.

In Seattle, a week of third-round talks was interrupted by a direct action on Sept. 9 in which 15 demonstrators were arrested at the Washington Trade and Convention Center, the site of the talks.

As a result of these protests, the U.S. and South Korean governments were forced to hold the fourth round of talks on Jae Ju Island at the southern tip of Korea.

Just as the 1999 World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting took place high up in the Alps in Davos, Switzerland, the fifth round of talks—which was originally rumored to be planned for Washington, D.C.—was later rescheduled to convene at the exclusive and secluded ski resort of Big Sky, Mont.

This move outraged activists and even inconvenienced the Korean FTA negotiators themselves, who had to take three airplane flights and a two-hour bus ride, traveling over 24 hours to get to the ski resort.

In the heart of U.S. beef country

The choice of Montana by the U.S. government was a strategic one. According to the National Cattlemen’s Association, Montana’s beef industry represents a major economic activity in the state’s economy.

Big Sky Ski Resort was the site of the July 2005 FTA talks between the U.S. and Thailand.

Montana Sen. Max Baccus, a Democrat with a long record of support for FTA agreements, sent an invite to the Korean government to host the talks back in 1999. Baccus, whose family has been cattle ranchers for six generations, will take over as chair of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee in January.

According to the Dec. 4 issue of the Korean newspaper “The Hankyoreh,” the U.S. is applying “pressure for South Korea to further open its beef market for U.S. imports; beef is Montana’s flagship industry.”

Baccus—while digging into a Montana-raised T-bone steak—said to reporters, “I have a beef with Korea. Our beef is the safest, highest quality in the world and Korea should open its market fully as soon as possible.” (AP, Dec. 3)

Since 2003, U.S. beef imports have been banned from the South Korean market. But through the KorUS FTA talks, there was an easing off of restrictions this September. Korea now accepts beef from cattle less than 30 months old, but continues to prohibit beef fed bone material that could carry mad cow disease.

The U.S. has not lived up to its end of the deal. The Korea Times reported on Dec. 4 that “[O]fficials said they found three bone fragments in the 3.2 tons of beef from a slaughterhouse in Nebraska, following a similar discovery in beef from Kansas in October. The government plans to return or discard the latest imports, as Seoul had agreed to buy only ‘boneless’ meat.’”

The Korean Times continued, “Recent reports say a dozen cases of mad cow disease have been found in cattle younger than 30 months as well as in red meat, meaning import limits by age or parts have their own limits.”

Currently, the U.S. livestock industry tests only about 1 percent of every 100,000 cattle slaughtered daily, and reportedly plans to reduce this percentage to 0.11 percent. The U.S. government is even discouraging voluntary testing by slaughterhouses.

Part of every anti-FTA protest in South Korea has included protesters dressed as cows, or carrying placards with images of cows, to send a clear message that tainted beef from the U.S. is a huge concern.

More than 170,000 workers, farmers and anti-war activists took to the streets in 13 cities in South Korea on Nov. 22. These demonstrations coincided with a general strike called by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

The protests were met with severe police repression and brutality in the cities of Gwangju and Daejeon. The following day, the South Korean government banned all further anti-FTA demonstrations and issued 85 arrest warrants for leaders of worker, farmer and anti-war groups, raiding nine offices of organizations.

However, what was supposed to be a deterrent to the anti-FTA movement in South Korea has ignited a firestorm of protest. Once again on Nov. 29, tens of thousands of people came out for another anti-FTA demonstration.

South Korean organizers project outrage against the government repression will turn out even larger numbers for the Dec. 6 anti-FTA demonstration during the fifth round of talks in Montana.

Protesting at Big Sky

Likewise, neither arrest warrants, several inches of snow or the cold Montana weather have hampered the militant resolve of the activists who traveled to Big Sky, Mont. Activists have come from South Korea and from cities in the U.S., including New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., to join with Montana activists to say “No!” to the KorUS FTA.

Defying local officials, activists held a media conference on the morning of Dec. 4 outside the front doors of the Yellowstone Convention Center, the site of the talks.

Later that afternoon more than 50 activists participated in a rally at City Hall in Bozeman, Mont.

Young Choe, an organizer with KAWAN and the Manhattan-based group Nodutdol for Korean Development, said, “The myth is KorUS Free Trade Agreement would benefit Montana farmers, but the reality is that it will only benefit U.S. corporations like Tyson and Cargill. Today on the first day of the protest, small farmers from both Montana and Korea stood in solidarity against FTA.”

More activists are scheduled to travel to Big Sky throughout the week to participate in rallies, marches, candlelight vigils and other actions.

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