Popular Resistance in Korea Delays FTA and Dispatch of Troops to Iraq
On 9th February 2004, the Korean National Assembly planned to consecutively ratify and legislate two bills that had been facing strong resistance from the people throughout the last year- the ratification of the Korea-Chile FTA and legislation to allow 3,000 combat troops to be sent to Iraq. However, the two agendas were both temporarily deterred due to popular resistance of the people.
20,000 people gathered in front of the National Assembly in Yeoido, and protested from morning till late night. People had started to gather from 11am and started with a demonstration against the government¡¯s plan to dispatch troops to Iraq. At 2pm, in a nearby park, the Korean Farmers¡¯ Solidarity – a coalition of peasant and agricultural organizations- mobilized 15,000 peasants in protest against the FTA. The two rallies, in the afternoon, merged and took over the wide avenue in front of the National Assembly. Clashes broke out between the demonstrators and the riot police, who had established a ¡°fortress¡± to prevent the demonstrators from nearing the National Assembly. The riot police used water cannons, pepper stray and rocks to disperse the demonstration, even through the demonstration had legal permit to block the road. The riot police also beat down their metal shields and batons on the unarmed peasants and students, leaving many seriously injured. One unidentified activist is in danger of becoming blind from a rock thrown by the police. More than 40 protestors are being detained by the police.
The rally continued well into the night, and a debate broke out on the FTA among the parliamentarians. The debate was on the FTA itself and the compensatory measures that the government had proposed, and also on the method of vote. Parliamentarians, who opposed the FTA package, had demanded that the vote be an open one – in fear of losing support during the upcoming General Elections in April. However, at around 11pm, parliamentarians started to leave the Assembly, and the chair adjourned the Assembly on the condition that the Assembly convene once again on 16th February to ratify the FTA. The demonstrators on the streets who had been waiting for the results cheered, and the demonstration soon turned into a celebration of triumph.
The Korea-Chile FTA was initially raised just after the economic crisis, and was formally signed last year in February. The FTA was then pushed in the National Assembly for ratification since July and was passed in the standing committees, as well as in the Chilean parliament. Korean businesses and neoliberalists, who are hoping to extend the automobile and mobile phone market to Chile, demanded for quick ratification particularly after the collapse of the WTO ministerial. The Korea-Chile FTA is expected to have devastating effect on Korean agriculture from Chilean imports that will mainly benefit US transnational agribusinesses.
The ratification in the Assembly¡¯s main session was continuously delayed due to the struggle of the peasants. On 9th February, it was delayed once again, for third time.
The bill on dispatch of combat troops to Iraq, which the US has been strongly demanding, is also pending in the National Assembly, due to broad mobilization against it throughout Korea since last year. Korea had already sent non-combat troops to Iraq despite nationwide public opinion against it. Opinion against the dispatch grew stronger particularly after two Korean workers were killed in Iraq. However, right-wing politicians are determined to send the combat troops and consolidate political and economic alliance with the US, while criticism against the plan is on the rise both within and outside the National Assembly. The bill to dispatch the troops was also due to be legislated in the Assembly session on 9th February, however, after the bill was passed in the National Defense Standing Committee, it failed to form consensus and be taken up as the official agenda of the main session.
Everyone who had shivered in the cold and fought all day outside the National Assembly hugged each other and congratulated everyone. Organization leaders commented that this was truly an historical day that showed the unity of the people can truly bring about change. In particular, another delay in the ratification of the FTA was a grand victory for the peasants, showing that deterrence of the FTA was possible. However, they also added that the struggle was not over, and that it will continue next week and throughout the year. The peasants are particularly determined, since the government is planning to renegotiate Korean rice tariffs in the WTO in September.
Reported by secretariat of Korean People¡¯s Action against FTA & WTO (KoPA) 10th February, 2004