Sit-in, tear gas not the answerThe Korea-U.S. free trade agreement will officially take effect on Jan. 1 after the National Assembly passed the deal in a chaotic session that saw the unprecedented detonation within the chamber of a tear gas canister. Late President Roh Moo-hyun, who initiated free trade negotiations with Washington in his New Year’s address in 2006, said the country must strike a free trade pact with the U.S. to guarantee the future success of the economy.
The path to ratification was notoriously bumpy. First finalized in June 2007, the deal was repeatedly renegotiated before the U.S. Congress approved a revised version last month. Since then, the main opposition Democratic Party and splinter Democratic Labor Party occupied the National Assembly to block a legislative review of the ratification bill. President Lee Myung-bak visited the Assembly and pleaded for leaders from the ruling Grand National Party and the DP to reach a compromise.
But the DP refused to be placated. Its leaders demanded a guarantee that the contentious investor-state dispute settlement (ISD) clause would be renegotiated, but they refused to accept Lee’s vow to do so within three months of ratification, instead calling for a written agreement before ratification.
Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae used his authority to put the ratification to a vote on Tuesday in a plenary session, allowing Vice Speaker Chung Ui-hwa of the GNP to push ahead with the voting. As soon as Chung declared the opening of the session, opposition lawmakers rushed to protest. But their violent resistance - including a tear-gas canister hurled by Representative Kim Sun-dong of the DLP - failed to stop 151 conservative lawmakers from stamping their approval. Seven voted against the deal, and 12 abstained.
Later, DP chairman Sohn Hak-kyu described the railroading of the bill as a coup d’etat, while his party began a sit-in protest with the DLP.
But the controversial ISD clause was part of the original FTA formulated by the Roh Moo-hyun government and is a common feature of trade deals designed to protect international investors. The president also gave his word to renegotiate the provision, but the opposition was recalcitrant. Now, the DP is labeling the ratification as illegal, but it gave the government no choice as it acted merely to undermine the GNP and win over the public ahead of next year’s legislative elections. If the DP really has the public’s interests at heart, it must end the sit-in and consult voters on how to address undesirable parts of the pact.