Rumors fly around at anti-FTA rallies

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Rumors fly around at anti-FTA rallies

Groundless rumors were rampant over the weekend at candlelight vigils in protest of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, creating worries of a repeat of the violent 2008 protests against U.S. beef imports that brought the city center to a standstill for weeks.

At rallies across Seoul, protesters said they were worried that the FTA would bring about a proliferation of foreign-owned private hospitals in the country’s free economic zones.

“Under the FTA, the Korean government can’t control private hospitals owned by foreigners,” said Gweon Byeong-guk, an attorney who attended a Thursday rally in front of Korea Development Bank in Yeouido.

There are currently no privately owned hospitals in Korea, and the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee has said that the FTA was unrelated to the issue of privatized hospitals.

Yet O Chae-won, an accountant from Seoul’s Yangcheon District, feared the FTA would prevent her children from receiving medical care.

“If hospitals in Korea become privatized, we won’t be able to give vaccines to our babies,” said O, who was at the Thursday rally with 2,000 others. “Our quality of life can’t be guaranteed if our basic needs such as water and electricity are controlled by financial speculation.”

A high school student from Incheon at the rally said, “What if I get appendicitis? I heard the surgery would cost 9 million won [$8,100] if the Korea-U.S. FTA is ratified. Without the money, should I just die?”

The rallies were mostly peaceful, though 24 demonstrators were arrested at Thursday’s candlelight vigil.

On Friday, about 1,000 people held a candlelight vigil in front of Kookmin Bank in Yeouido. The next day, some 2,000 protesters gathered in front of Daehan Gate in central Seoul, where participants took turns going on stage to share their thoughts on the FTA.

About 80 percent of participants in Saturday’s protest were in their teens and 20s, and half of them were women. Many said they decided to attend the rally after being encouraged by messages on social networking sites.

Lee Jung-hee, chairwoman of the Democratic Labor Party, told rallygoers on Thursday to make their voices heard in next year’s elections.

“We saw hope in electing Park Won-soon as Seoul mayor with our power,” Lee said. “With this power, let’s make a civic-owned government in next year’s presidential election.”

Police say they were worried that the rallies’ antigovernment sentiment could lead to the large-scale demonstrations in 2008 that were sparked by unfounded fears of mad cow disease from U.S. beef. At the time, protests against U.S. beef were initially peaceful before turning violent and widespread.


By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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