- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

INCHEON, South Korea (AP) — Protesters and riot police squared off yesterday as U.S. officials arrived for a week of talks aimed at making headway on a proposed free-trade agreement with South Korea.

Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler, the chief U.S. negotiator, and other members of her team arrived at Incheon International Airport as about two dozen demonstrators chanted slogans against the accord.

About 700 police, some wielding riot gear and shields, were on guard inside and outside the airport, located in a major port city near Seoul, the capital. Police formed tight columns to keep the protesters away from the arriving U.S. officials, though their shouting was well within earshot.

The proposed free-trade agreement faces strong resistance from South Korean labor groups, especially farmers who oppose any reduction in protections for agriculture, particularly rice.

In comments to South Korean reporters, Mrs. Cutler said the U.S. was seeking “improved market access in the agricultural sector” as well as all other areas.

The free-trade proposal has been drawing regular protests since even before the two governments announced in February that they would enter the negotiations that, if successful, would be the biggest such accord for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993.

The South Korean government on Friday vowed stern measures if violence breaks out at street demonstrations planned this week in conjunction with the second round of talks, starting today at a Seoul hotel. The first round was held last month in Washington.

Police expect about 50,000 protesters to take to the streets this week, while groups opposed to the talks hoped for numbers to top 100,000. The National Police Agency was mobilizing about 20,000 officers.

Major demonstrations are scheduled for Wednesday, including a partial strike by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the county’s two major labor organizations.

Seoul and Washington aim to wrap up the deal by the end of this year so their legislatures will have time to debate and ratify it before President Bush’s “fast track” trade authority runs out in mid-2007. The fast-track authority allows U.S. envoys to negotiate an agreement that the president can submit to Congress for a yea-or-nay vote without amendments.

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