Day one of a WTO conference here was marred on Wednesday by the suicide of a South Korean protester and violent clashes at demonstrations against the five-day gathering called to spur momentum toward a new global trade accord.
Lee Kyang Hae, 55, who headed South Korea's Federation of Farmers and Fishermen, stabbed himself in protest against the WTO, "which destroys Korea's economy and its agriculture," a fellow-militant said.
"His death is not a personal accident but reflects the desperate fighting of 3.5 million Korean farmers," said Song Nan Sou, president of the Farmers Management Association, one of several South Korean groups taking part in demonstrations at this upmarket Mexican seaside resort.
"We all regret this sad incident," World Trade Organization Director-General Supachai Panitchpakdi said after Lee died in a Cancun hospital.
"This self-inflicted wound has resulted in his death, so we do regret it," he said.
Lee stabbed himself on the sidelines of a protest by several thousand people that ended in clashes between police and a few hundred demonstrators.
Several people were injured as police used teargas and batons to disperse militants who hurled rocks and other projectiles at security forces and tried to force their way through a barrier blocking the route from downtown Cancun to the conference venue.
World trade ministers early in the day went behind police barricades to begin what by all accounts will be an arduous five days and nights of talks aimed at breaking a deadlock in the latest round of trade liberalization negotiations.
But the gathering had barely gotten underway when Supachai's opening remarks were interrupted by chants and jeers from some 30 protesters who accuse the WTO of being too deferential to big business and indifferent to the plight of the poor.
Even without the protesters, the WTO faces daunting internal challenges, with delegations divided on how to go about getting rid of trade-distorting subsidies to farmers and removing trade barriers to exports from the poorest nations.
They are working against a January 1, 2005 deadline to complete the round, agreed at the previous WTO ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar in 2001.
"We face a choice here in Cancun: either we continue to strengthen the multilateral trading system and the world economy or we flounder and add to the prevailing uncertainties," Supachai said.
US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick appealed for common ground between importers and exporters.
"One of the most important ideas of our time is to try to employ the power of trade to overcome poverty, to spur development and to create opportunity," he told the conference.
"But to be effective, openness must be a two-way street. Trade is about imports as well as about exports.... Trade can lead to growth and development for those countries that are willing to open their economies and open their societies."
European Trade Commissioner Patrick Lamy said the EU was ready "to go the extra mile to bring us to agreement."
He stressed that the key overall goal was "the integration of developing countries into the world economy," though he insisted the global trade group was not divided between poor and rich nations.
"It would be a great mistake to see the situation this way and at odds with reality," he said in remarks to the conference.
But Indian Commerce Minister Arun Jaitly criticized a text submitted for discussion at the meeting, saying "it does not accommodate the legitimate aspirations of developing countries and instead seeks to project and advance the views of certain developed countries."
Nonetheless, a group of 21 developing nations scored what Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim described as "the first battle" when its controversial proposal calling for an end to government assistance to agricultural exporters was accepted to be discussed "on an equal footing" with the WTO text.