On Saturday, hundreds of riot police stood guard as throngs gathered in downtown Seoul to protest the pact. The activism has hit the streets and the political realm as minority lawmakers claim that President Lee Myung-bak's administration blundered when it signed a deal that is bad for South Korea.
Tempers have flared at the mere mention of the agreement. Saturday's rally, the last of several against the pact, was staged after the South Korean Foreign Ministry last week confirmed the March 15 start date.
The free-trade pact has become a major battleground in the general and presidential elections set to be held this year in April and November, respectively. Last week during a news conference marking his fourth year in the office, President Lee stressed that the agreement is important for the nation's economic development, and he criticized opposition party politicians for changing their position on the issue.
"I believe that the agreement could create many jobs," Lee said at the news conference. "For some agriculture and stock farming industries that are threatened [by the pact], our government can take this chance to support those fragile industries and make it more competitive."
The agreement, which many estimate could boost annual trade between the two nations by 25%, was ratified in November in the South Korean National Assembly amid chaotic scenes as legislators scuffled in the halls of power, shouting and screaming. One ignited a tear gas canister.
The agreement is expected to boost the nation's trade surplus, but critics say it will hurt the rural economy.
On Saturday night, amid a biting February wind, protesters chanted, "Annul Korea-U.S. FTA!" and "Stop the effectuation!" As speakers and celebrities voiced their opposition, the crowd held up signs reading "FTA is pro-plutocrat, anti-democracy, anti-labor, anti-welfare. It will kill South Korean economy and the masses" and "Be mournful, Be angry! The U.S. colonization of South Korea has started!"
Lee Jung-hee, co-chairman of the United Progressive Party, said that amending the agreement must be the goal of opposition party members in the coming days. Minority-party politicians have asked voters to cast their ballots against any candidate who favors the agreement.
"The first thing the newly elected president should do will be signing a letter to abrogate the FTA and sending it to the U.S." Lee said.
Nearby, pro-pact factions held a much smaller rally. "Korea-U.S. FTA will be beneficial for the Korean citizens," said one speaker. "This will be South Korea's leap to become a truly advanced country."
The battle has also been waged on the Internet. "The way FTA was ratified was undemocratic to start," posted one blogger. "The citizens themselves have to have a chance to vote for or against the pact directly."
Another posted that the pact is a chance for "South Korea to rise as a world trade and economic leader. Asking for abrogation of the agreement that is already ratified will only impair South Korea’s national dignity."
-- Jung-yoon Choi
Photo: Protesters rally against the U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement in Seoul. Credit: Lee Myung-ik / EPA