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South Korea approves free trade agreement with US despite deep divisions

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The vote also had implications for the US-Korean military alliance since Lee and President Obama had appeared to get along extremely well in Lee’s carefully orchestrated visit to the US last month. Just before he got to Washington the agreement won easy approval in Congress, overcoming earlier misgivings about the potential impact of widening US markets to more South Korean motor vehicles and other products.

Rising threat from US farm imports?

Foes of the agreement in South Korea focused their campaign against it on a provision for sending investor-state disputes to an international arbitration body that they claim favors the United States. South Korean farmers also are incensed by what they see as a rising threat from US farm imports even though the deal does not cover the import of rice, the central staple of the South Korean diet, sold at artificially high prices.

There appeared to be little doubt the newly-approved Korean-US FTA would remain at the core of opposition protests against the government, along with complaints about the US-Korea alliance under which 28,500 US troops remain in the country.

“Until the real – and the perceived – disadvantaged workers and small business owners are convinced that free trade will serve them best in the long term,” says economic consultant Tom Coyner in Seoul, “we may anticipate populist opposition.”

Tear gas and scuffles in parliament

The bitterness surfaced in a ruckus broadcast by South Korean TV networks. As the assembly was convening without prior notice, one opposition member set off a tear-gas grenade and staff members battled security guards to get into the assembly and physically prevent the vote.

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