Demonstrators Protest Free Trade With South Korea

About 100 people gathered Sunday to protest a potential U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement, part of a weeklong series of demonstrations and rallies planned as trade officials begin formal talks.

South Korean farmers and laborers and their U.S. supporters began their march at the International Monetary Fund building in downtown Washington, banging on gongs, drums and cymbals, chanting, "Down, down, FTA" and carrying signs reading, "FTA Destroys Labor Rights."

South Korea and the United States were to launch negotiations Monday on a free trade agreement that would be the biggest such accord for Washington since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

The deal is seen as part of a strategic U.S. attempt to boost business with an ally while countering China's huge presence in a crucial region.

Negotiations are expected to take at least a year, and it is an open question whether they will succeed.

The agreement faces strong resistance, especially among South Korean farmers, who have staged violent street demonstrations to protest giving up farm protections. Any agreement would also have to be approved by the U.S. Congress, where some lawmakers contend Bush's free-trade policies cost American jobs.

South Korean farmers formed a core part of about 1,000 protesters rounded up in Hong Kong in December after anti-globalization protests during a World Trade Organization meeting turned violent.

Lee Changgeun, a representative of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, said those gathered in Washington wanted to avoid violence while fighting an accord that would harm Korean and American workers.

"We would like to press our extreme concerns about the Korean-U.S. FTA," he said. "Our principle is peaceful and lawful demonstration here in Washington D.C."