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Wednesday, September 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S.-South Korea trade talks open here amid noisy protests

Seattle Times business reporter

Pounding drums and dancing, about 500 protesters paraded through downtown Seattle this afternoon to protest U.S. trade talks with South Korea.

The talks got under way as scheduled. The noisy choreographed protests led by about 60 South Korean nationals didn't disrupt any meetings, although they briefly stopped traffic around Westlake Park. and the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, near where the trade negotiations are taking place

The police presence was minimal with officers on bicycles, motorcycles and horses, but no sign of any riot gear.

There was a substantial turnout of protesters from a broad range of labor unions. "We can't have another NAFTA," said Jim Padur, a retired Tacoma boatyard worker and Machinists union member. Further protests are planned throughout the week as the talks continue through Saturday.

The South Korea-U.S. trade talks are the first such high-level meetings here since protesters and police created a war zone during World Trade Organization talks in 1999.

The stakes are high. A South Korea-U.S. agreement would be the biggest trade accord since the U.S., Mexico and Canada launched the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.

The United States has sent more than 100 people to the talks, one of the largest such delegations to venture outside the nation's capital. South Korea has sent twice that number.

The goal is a deal patterned on NAFTA and other such accords that covers factory goods, services and farm products, as well as such broader issues as rules for competition and government purchasing.

This is the third meeting between the two countries, and they remain far apart. But they aim for a handshake by year-end.

That would allow the deal to be ratified before the mid-2007 expiration of U.S. "fast track" authority, which restricts Congress to voting for or against.

"It's going to be extremely challenging," Wendy Cutler, the chief U.S. negotiator, said Tuesday at a news conference.

The U.S. says a deal would help its farmers and manufacturers sell more abroad, narrowing a trade gap of $16.billion last year.

U.S. markets are mostly open, but South Korea, the world's 10th largest economy, maintains an average 11.percent tariff on U.S. goods, a barrier that keeps many American products out, U.S. officials said.

Last year, for example, Washington sold only $41,000 worth of apples and pears to South Korea out of $1.8.billion in state exports to the country.

"That's a good argument for the agreement," said Andreas Udbye, executive director of the World Trade Center Tacoma. "We know the agricultural sector will benefit from this."

Software, pharmaceuticals and retail services also could benefit.

Cutler said protesters, including labor groups, have had ample opportunity to submit their objections.

But union leaders said they're being ignored. Thea Lee, policy director for the AFL-CIO, called for a moratorium on talks "until we see a dramatic change in what they're proposing."

Lee and others say the agreement would weaken labor and environmental protections, and that the main beneficiaries of trade would be big corporations and their shareholders.

"This is the most economically important and potentially destructive agreement since NAFTA," Lee said. "Korea is a very formidable economic competitor. If we completely open our markets, do we have confidence that we'll get reciprocal market access?"

South Korean farmers and workers, for their part, say new trade rules would hurt them— a view their own government doesn't dispute.

"It's obvious," said Ahn Myung-soo, director-general of Korea's Multilateral Trade Bureau, who is part of the visiting delegation.

But the government offers payments to help farmers and workers find new jobs. And overall, the economy does better with an agreement. "We expect the free-trade agreement to create jobs rather than reducing or outsourcing them," Ahn said.

Protesters say the deal would require South Korea to change its national health system and water down automobile-emission limits.

"I do see some benefits for communications and technology," said Ki Kab Kang, a 54-year-old protester who grew up on a small dairy and fruit farm his family still runs. "But for farmers and workers, it'll make their lives harder, and the benefit will go to a small group of business conglomerates in Korea."

Kang, a legislator in South Korea's national assembly, wore a delicate cotton robe and slippers Tuesday, both white. The traditional garment symbolized Korean culture, something he said the trade agreement would destroy.

Under the deal, South Korea would have to give up subsidies it pays its farmers and accept foreign imports. But farms there are small, about 5.acres on average, Kang said. "We can't compete with the U.S."

Others say the South Koreans are simply protecting their own nests.

"Korean farmers are not on the side of the poor farmers of Africa, they're on side of farmers of France," which also pays large subsidies to farmers, said Bill Center, president of the Washington Council on International Trade, which is helping organize the talks.

Times reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this report.

Alwyn Scott 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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