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US-South Korea beef dispute escalates

Korean opposition protests the reopening of markets to US imports, threatening a free-trade agreement

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Although conservatives control a majority of the Assembly seats, conservative members from rural areas are expected to oppose the beef deal and also the free trade agreement. President Lee hopes to get the Assembly to ratify the agreement in the next month or two, but one conservative member was quoted as saying "now is not a good time" to resume beef imports.

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Militant labor unions and farmers groups have drafted action plans to keep American beef from reaching markets. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a powerful umbrella group under leftist leadership, calls the decision to import the beef "a declaration of war against the people," and promises to hold rallies beginning Tuesday in front of cold storage warehouses containing US beef.

The protest in Korea substantially diminishes chances of ratification of the free trade agreement by Congress. Although beef is not included in the agreement, many senators and congressmen say they cannot vote for it if beef is still excluded from Korean markets, where Australian and New Zealand beef is sold at prices far below those for Korean beef.

Prospects for an FTA suffered a severe blow this month when Barack Obama, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, wrote President Bush, saying the FTA is "badly flawed" and advising him not to send the agreement to Congress for ratification.

Mr. Obama, basing his criticism in part on complaints from the US motor-vehicle industry, said the deal "would give Korean exports essentially unfettered access to the US market and would eliminate our best opportunity for obtaining genuinely reciprocal market access in one of the world's largest economies."

Larry Niksch, an Asia specialist at the Congressional Research Service, believes Obama's position means the free-trade agreement has "no chance" in Congress while Mr. Bush is in office. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's competitor for the Democratic nomination, has already voiced her strenuous opposition.

Niksch notes, however, that Obama "keeps the door open to do something about the agreement, but probably in a modified way," if he is elected president.

Given the emotions in both Korea and the US, Donald Gross, adjunct fellow of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says "the best course would be if the current US administration were to hold off" on pressing for passage of the free-trade agreement.

"No one who cares about the US-South Korean relations wishes to see this thing go down to flaming defeat," says Mr. Gross. "For this to be voted down is very painful for the whole relationship." Thus, he says, "my personal hope is for it not to be submitted to the U.S. Congress."