SEOUL: South Korean farmers opposed to their country entering a free-trade agreement with the United States disrupted a public hearing on the issue Thursday.
About a dozen farmers stormed that stage at the meeting between South Korean officials and regular citizens to discuss the plan.
The farmers unfurled a banner reading "Stop farmer terror action'' and other slogans and depicting upside-down U.S. flags.
An announcement on the opening of talks aimed at achieving a free trade agreement is expected at any time.
Tariff protection for farmers is a highly sensitive issue in South Korea, and the prospect of the talks has fueled emotions.
Senior South Korean officials say the talks will begin soon, but haven't said exactly when.
The Yonhap news agency reported, without naming a source, that the launch of the talks would be announced later Thursday in Washington.
Kim Jong-hoon, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official, said South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong was in Washington for negotiations.
The minister's office denied he was there.Kim Jong-hoon told The Associated Press that he expected the trade talks to begin this week "if things go smoothly.''
The public hearing was a legally required move ahead of the start of the free trade talks, but the disruption at the Seoul conference center where it was taking place underscored the opposition the deal faces in South Korea - particularly from its always-vocal farmers, who last year staged violent protests against moves to lower trade barriers to the domestic rice market, a move they fear will wipe out their livelihoods.
At the meeting hosted by Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, about a dozen farmers and activists unfurled a large banner reading, "Stop farmer terror action'' in English along with other slogans and picturing upside-down U.S. flags.
The demonstrators demanded South Korean officials confirm the date for the start of free-trade talks, which they declined to do.
The farmers also accused the government of striking a secret deal to start the trade negotiations and staging the hearing just for show.
After some scuffles with others in the crowd of about 400, a handful of protesters took the stage - prompting the officials there to leave.
The session wasn't resumed and broke up less than an hour later.
A report on the meeting was to be submitted to the South Korean Cabinet, said Lee Seong-ho, director of the North America trade division at the ministry.
Washington considers South Korea a key nation for striking a free-trade deal.
Seoul is the United States' seventh-largest trading partner with two-way trade of about US$61 billion (euro50 billion) in 2003, according to U.S. government figures.
The United States is the second-biggest destination for South Korean exports after China, according to the South Korean government.
Both sides are expected to focus on completing an agreement by June 2007, when the Bush Administration's authority to negotiate an agreement and submit it to Congress for a vote minus amendments runs out. - AP
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