South Korean farmers protested against free-trade talks with the US yesterday, a day before the start of a new round of negotiations that have so far achieved few breakthroughs.
About 50 protesters, mostly farmers and their supporters, chanted peacefully against the proposed accord in the lobby of the airport on South Korea's southern island Jeju , as more than 100 riot police in tight formation stood nearby.
The protesters wore red and white headbands printed with slogans in Korean against the agreement. One protester wore a T-shirt printed with ``No! FTA'' in English.
The US and South Korea began talks in Washington in June, aiming to forge a trade liberalization accord that would be the biggest for the US since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.
A second round of talks in Seoul in July was met by large street protests. The third round was held in the US West coast city of Seattle last month, and the fourth is to be held on Jeju from today through Friday.
Security at the resort island was tight, with Jeju's police force of 2,000 officers beefed up with 10,000 police from the mainland, according to Kim Chul-soo, a Jeju police official.
Police expect up to 20,000 protesters, including 5,000 from Seoul, to hold rallies, Kim said.
Protesters and police signed an agreement on Wednesday, Kim added, in which demonstrators had agreed not to hold violent protests.
In return, police agreed to allow the rallies to come as close as 500m to the venue for the talks, a hotel at the southern end of the island.
The US wants more access for its pharmaceuticals, automobiles, farm products and other goods, while Seoul wants South Korean products manufactured in North Korea to be subject to the agreement. The US has said it can't accept that.
South Korean rice and beef farmers, in particular, have vehemently opposed a deal, saying cheaper US products would jeopardize their livelihoods.
Both governments say that an accord would benefit both sides and boost economic growth between the allies, which have cooperated for decades in security and defense. They hope to have an agreement in place by the end of the year.
The clock is ticking because US President George W. Bush's legal authority to ``fast track'' a deal expires in the middle of next year.
Fast-tracking allows US envoys to negotiate an agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a straight yes-or-no vote without amendments.
Assistant US Trade Representative Wendy Cutler, the chief US negotiator, said at the previous round of talks that Washington remains committed to trying to reach an accord by the end of this year.