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November 22, 2011 2:35 pm
South Korea’s ruling conservatives have approved a landmark trade agreement with the US in a boisterous parliamentary session in which one opposition lawmaker let off a gas canister.
Although Washington and Seoul signed the tariff-reducing agreement in 2007, legislatures in both countries have struggled to finalise it, needing to overcome objections from vocal lobbies who feared job losses, such as US auto unions and Korean farmers. Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s president, called on parliamentarians to ratify the agreement, calling it “a survival strategy for our country”.
The ruling Grand National party had expressed increasing frustration that the leftwing Democratic party was opposing the deal as unfair to Korean workers, although it was the DP that originally initiated the accord in 2005.
The GNP caught the opposition off guard on Tuesday and held a snap vote two days ahead of schedule. The conservatives passed the deal by 151 votes to seven in the 295-seat assembly, exercising their majority in the absence of the opposition.
The deal was also finally approved in Washington last month and is now expected to enter into force next January. South Korea is the US’s seventh-biggest trade partner and bilateral trade reached almost $90bn last year. Washington said reduced tariffs would add some $10bn to US goods’ exports each year.
Ramming legislation through parliament is a risky tactic in Asia’s fourth-biggest economy because the trade deal is an emotive subject that taps into broader concerns about the influence of the US, which bases 30,000 troops in South Korea. In 2008, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans packed the streets to protest at imports of US beef, feared to spread mad cow disease.
Although the GNP holds a parliamentary majority, South Korean parties are traditionally expected to build consensus before a vote.
One opposition lawmaker tried to halt Tuesday’s vote by letting off a gas canister, causing conservative lawmakers to choke, waft the air with folders and flee the chamber with handkerchiefs over their mouths. The canister attack recalled previous parliamentary tussles over the trade deal when lawmakers fought with fire extinguishers and a sledgehammer.
Both main parties have sought to build political capital from the trade debate ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections but voters are increasingly disillusioned with the unruly conduct of their mainstream politicians and unexpectedly voted for an independent as mayor of Seoul last month.
Kim Yu-jeong, floor leader of the DP accused the GNP of the “destruction of parliamentary democracy” and said his party would boycott some parliamentary activities. The DP is angry the bill was passed because it objected to the part of the accord that says US-Korean trade disputes can go to international arbitration.
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong
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