Free trade protesters shout out

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Protesters slamming free trade negotiations between South Korea and the United States took to the streets Tuesday as officials pushed for breakthroughs on contentious issues that threaten to torpedo a deal.

Shouting “Stop the Korea-U.S. FTA,” a group estimated by police at 3,000 people held a peaceful sit-down protest on a Seoul thoroughfare across town from the heavily guarded talks in a hotel.

Protesters, including opposition lawmakers, cattle farmers, laborers, medical workers and students, later marched toward the negotiation site but were blocked by special police riot buses from approaching the hotel.

About 50 demonstrators scuffled briefly with police but there were no injuries.

Authorities have deployed about 15,000 riot police on the streets of the capital this week, many of them near the site of the negotiations, which, as during talks in Seoul in July, has turned into a virtual fortress.

Demonstrations against the proposed deal dogged the previous two rounds in South Korea. The talks have drawn sometimes fierce resistance from farmers, laborers and even filmmakers who say free trade threatens their livelihoods.

The South Korean government has vowed “zero tolerance” for violent protests.

This week’s negotiations resumed Monday after five previous rounds since June left Seoul and Washington far apart on issues ranging from antidumping provisions to trade in automobiles and pharmaceuticals.

Chief negotiators for the two sides – veteran trade diplomat Ambassador Kim Jong-hoon for Seoul and Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler for Washington – vowed a major push for progress ahead of a fast-approaching deadline for a deal.

The proposed agreement would slash tariffs and other barriers on a wide range of goods and services from the two nations, which already do $72 billion worth of business a year.

South Korea, the world’s 10th-largest economy, is the United States’ seventh-biggest trading partner.

Though the stakes are high – if successful the deal would be the biggest for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 – time is running short.

President Bush, under special “fast-track” trade promotion authority, can submit a deal to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote without amendments until the end of June.

But a deal must be completed 90 days before so that lawmakers in Washington have enough time to review it before voting. South Korea’s legislature must also approve the pact.

Cutler and Kim, both leading teams comprising scores of negotiators, said Monday that they themselves would be taking up the toughest issues – trade remedies, automobiles and pharmaceuticals – to try and push forward the talks.

The current round is scheduled to end Friday. Cutler said Monday she could not say if a seventh round would take place, though South Korean media reports have said one is planned next month in the United States.

Im Jong-in, a lawmaker and member of President Roh Moo-hyun’s ruling Uri Party, strongly opposes the deal, but held out little hope it could be stopped.

“If it does collapse it will be because the U.S. applied too much pressure,” he said in near freezing temperatures shortly after sundown while joining about 10 opposition lawmakers in a protest near the hotel.



Associated Press photographer Jin-Man Lee contributed to this report.

AP-ES-01-16-07 0824EST

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