Parties inch closer to physical brawl
The ruling and opposition parties inched closer to a physical showdown at the National Assembly yesterday over the still-pending U.S. free trade agreement with the Lee Myung-bak administration renewing pressure on the ruling Grand National Party to pass the pact and the opposition digging in its heels.
The Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee is scheduled to meet today in what could be the final vote before sending the agreement to the National Assembly floor, despite vows from opposition lawmakers to physically block any move to advance the bill.
The GNP, with its large majority, can approve the FTA alone but is concerned about sparking a violent melee. Brawls have long been used by minority parties in the National Assembly to block controversial bills, but the public has come to increasingly disapprove the physical altercations.
Top administration and ruling party officials convened for two hours on Saturday evening to strategize the FTA’s passage, including the prime minister, various ministers as well as the GNP’s chairman, floor leader and chair of the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee.
“Since it is already at the committee, it is technically possible to have a floor vote if the speaker chooses to do so,” a Blue House official said.
The possible showdown comes as the Blue House makes a renewed push for the passage of the FTA in the aftermath of the ruling party’s defeat in last week’s Seoul mayoral by-election.
“In the aftermath of the [mayoral] defeat, the president spoke about measures to cope with the economic crisis, and the centerpiece was the FTA,” said a presidential aide. “Lee has assigned the responsibility to the chief of staff, Yim Tae-hee, to make sure it is ratified by working with GNP Chairman Hong Joon-pyo.”
According to Yim Jong-yong from the Prime Minister’s Office who attended the meeting, the Blue House requested the ruling party to ratify the agreement before the end of the month so that the trade deal can go into effect on Jan. 1, 2012. The request leaves only today for the GNP to approve the FTA.
The Democratic Party yesterday warned of grave consequences if the GNP used its majority to push the bill through.
“If the GNP chooses to become an amenable rubber-stamp party of the Blue House and railroad through the Korea-U.S. FTA, the public will forever turn its back to the GNP,” said Representative Kim Yoo-jung, a DP spokeswoman.
She also lambasted the ruling party for possibly reneging on its agreement last week to recess the National Assembly until Nov. 2.
“We have no choice but block it with a do-or-die attitude if the GNP attempts to railroad it,” Kim said.
Negotiations between the floor leaders of the GNP and DP yesterday also broke down, and scheduled negotiations over the opposition parties’ demands to remove clauses in the FTA they have deemed to be “toxic” failed to take place after the DP and the Democratic Labor Party boycotted it.
The ruling and opposition parties as well as the administration had originally agreed to discuss yesterday the FTA’s provision on investor-state dispute settlements (ISD), which has become a political hot potato in the ongoing deadlock. The DP has insisted on removing it, while the GNP has refused.
The provision would grant foreign investors the right to bring a dispute in Korea to an international panel, rather than seeking a resolution here. The DP has argued that the provision would make small companies and retailers in Korea vulnerable.
“U.S. FTA deals with developing countries like Panama contain the provision, while the Israel and Australia deals do not,” Representative Kim Jin-pyo, DP floor leader, said. “Korea, as the world’s 10th-largest trader, deserves as much treatment as Australia does.”
The GNP, in turn, has accused the DP of opposing the FTA’s ratification and demanding the ISD provision’s removal for politically motivated reasons.
“The ISD provision that the DP wants to scrap had been agreed to by the Roh administration,” Representative Kim Gi-hyeon, a GNP spokesman, said.
Representative Chung Dong-young of the DP and Representative Lee Jung-hee, chairwoman of the Democratic Labor Party, who were supposed to attend the ISD discussion, refused to participate at the last minute in protest of the Lee administration’s request to pass the FTA today. They also complained about the decision to broadcast the discussion live even though they said it had been agreed that the proceedings would be recorded and aired at night.
“The ISD is the worst of all the toxic clauses,” Chung said. “And yet, the Lee administration and the GNP have already decided to railroad the FTA [by today], and I wonder if they were serious about having this discussion on the ISD.”
The GNP condemned the opposition parties for failing to show up, calling the DP “cowards.”
By Ser Myo-ja, Song Su-hyun [firstname.lastname@example.org]