Rival parties brawl over fast-tracking bills

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Rival parties brawl over fast-tracking bills


Officials of the National Assembly Secretariat use a hammer and a crowbar early on Friday to forcibly open the door to a National Assembly office that lawmakers and officials of the conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party were occupying. [YONHAP]

War clouds continued to hang over the National Assembly on Friday following a violent overnight scuffle between lawmakers, as the conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP) resisted the ruling party’s legislative alliance to fast-track contentious reform bills.

Lawmakers of the Democratic Party (DP) and the main opposition LKP were locked in physical standoffs from Thursday afternoon until early Friday morning as the LKP lawmakers tried to stop the special committees on political and judicial reforms from holding meetings.

They were the first physical scuffles at the National Assembly since lawmakers revised the law governing the legislature in 2012 to end the brawls that were long a hallmark of Korean politics. The last physical fight at the National Assembly took place in 2011, when lawmakers violently scuffled over the ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

The Special Committee on Political Reform was supposed to start a process on Thursday to fast-track a bill to overhaul the current election system, while the Special Committee on Judicial Reform was set to do the same for three bills aimed at reforming law enforcement.

The bills are aimed at creating an independent investigative agency dedicated to investigating corruption by senior public servants, redistributing investigative powers between the police and the prosecution and revising the Criminal Procedure Act.

The DP and three opposition parties - Bareunmirae Party, Party for Democracy and Peace (PDP) and Justice Party - have formed an alliance to fast-track the package of four contentious bills, while the LKP fiercely opposed. The four parties decided to start the fast-track process on Thursday, and the contentious bills were all submitted to their corresponding committees as of Friday evening.

As the scuffles turned extremely violent, National Assembly speaker Moon Hee-sang exercised his right to ask the government to send police to the legislature around 7:15 p.m. on Thursday to regain order. It was the first time in 33 years that a speaker used the right.

By 9 p.m. on Thursday, the DP concluded that the four bills were all submitted to the National Assembly and intended to begin deliberation processes at the special committees.

The DP attempted to hold special committee meetings later at night, but LKP lawmakers physically blocked them.

Brawls intensified around 1:15 a.m. on Friday, as DP lawmakers attempted to forcibly open the doors to meeting rooms to start the fast-track process, while LKP lawmakers tried to stop them.

By 2:25 a.m., DP lawmakers started using hammers and a crowbar to break a door. During the process, some National Assembly workers and lawmakers’ aides were injured, while two LKP lawmakers and party members collapsed and were sent to hospitals.

After a further clash, the DP lawmakers on the Special Committee on Judicial Reform moved to another committee room and opened a session around 2:40 a.m., but they failed to designate the bills as fast-track items, as the quorum was not satisfied.

The committee has 18 members and needs 11 votes to fast-track the bills. Only six DP lawmakers attended the meeting. The committee is composed of eight DP lawmakers, seven LKP lawmakers, two Bareunmirae lawmakers and one PDP lawmaker.

Lawmakers of the DP and the LKP continued their standoff throughout the night. The two sides temporarily declared a truce around 4 a.m. on Friday.

The DP held a meeting at the National Assembly later in the morning and decided to urge a criminal investigation into the LKP’s attempts to obstruct the legislative processes.

“The LKP brought about unimaginable violence to the National Assembly,” DP Chairman Lee Hae-chan said. “Those who broke the law must face punishment.”

Rep. Hong Young-pyo, floor leader of the DP, said the party will petition the prosecution to start a criminal investigation into the LKP lawmakers.

Later in the afternoon, the DP submitted a petition to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office to investigate 18 lawmakers, including Rep. Na Kyung-won, floor leader of the LKP, and two aides on charges of violating the clauses banning violence in the National Assembly Act.

The National Assembly Act was revised in 2012 to introduce stern punishment against the use of force in the legislature.

Anyone who stops a lawmaker from entering a plenary session or a committee meeting and those who use force to interrupt a session are punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of up to 10 million won ($8,620).

The law also says anyone punished with a fine over 5 million won for obstructing a legislative activity is deprived the right to run in an election for a minimum of five years - a tremendous setback for any politician.

The LKP held a meeting around 8 a.m. at the National Assembly and blamed the DP for the brawls.

“Last night, we resisted with every fiber of our bodies to protect liberal democracy,” said Na. “What we are seeing is a coup in the legislature. We will try to stop the leftists’ attempt at a dictatorship with all possible means.”

“The National Assembly was a battlefield,” said Rep. Jeong Yong-ki, a chief policymaker of the LKP. “It was a war against those attempting to destroy the Constitution. The DP and their supporters used a crowbar and hammers to destroy the National Assembly and all the procedures decided under the National Assembly Act.”

Meanwhile, the Bareunmirae Party, one of the DP’s allies, hinted that it may slow down its campaign to fast-track the contentious bills.

Rep. Kim Kwan-young, floor leader of the party, said Friday that he will take time to explain and apologize for his actions.

Kim stirred controversy by abruptly replacing the Bareunmirae Party’s two members on the Special Committee on Judicial Reform on Thursday.

In his message to the party lawmakers, Kim said Friday that he had done so to push forward the deal struck with the DP and other parties, apologizing for hurting their feelings and angering other party members.

Kim replaced the party’s two lawmakers on the committee after Rep. Oh Shin-hwan openly defied the decision to compromise with the ruling party and threatened to use his vote to strike down the bills.

Kim, then, replaced him with the more compliant lawmaker Rep. Chae Yi-bai.

He also replaced Rep. Kwon Eun-hee with Rep. Lim Jae-hun.

The Bareunmirae Party was scheduled a general assembly of lawmakers starting at 5 p.m. on Friday.

It may be possible that other lawmakers of the party will try to hold a vote of no confidence to remove Kim from his floor leader position for his actions.

Meanwhile, National Assembly speaker Moon was urgently transferred to Seoul National University Hospital on Friday morning for surgery.

Shortly after 80 LKP lawmakers protested at his office on Wednesday, Moon was taken to a nearby hospital due to what his spokesman said was “shock from low blood sugar.”

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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