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FTA ratification faces further delay

Parties fail to send bill for plenary session

The parliamentary ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement is unlikely for another week at least, after rival parties on Thursday failed to move the bill forward for a floor vote.

A plenary session, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, was called off by the National Assembly speaker, amid a tense standoff between ruling and opposition lawmakers.

“The FTA issue is so tangled up (to be handled today). Other than that, there are just a few agenda for today’s session,” explained an official at the speaker’s office.

From early in the morning, tension was palpable in the Assembly’s main hall on reports that the Grand National Party might ask Rep. Park Hee-tae, the Assembly speaker and its member, to call a vote on the FTA bill at the plenary session.

Rep. Park, however, did not move as some GNP members would have liked.

“That’s my decision to make,” not the GNP’s, Park said, in response to a question whether he was asked by the GNP leaders to have the FTA bill by-pass a committee-level vote.

“I am not going to invoke my right today to put the bill to a floor vote,” he said.

The motion to ratify the Korea-U.S. FTA is yet to clear the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and trade, amid vehement resistance from opposition members.

On Wednesday, the committee’s chair, GNP Rep. Nam Kyung-pil, used his right to table it for deliberation as opposition members continued to physically obstruct committee sessions to prevent the bill’s passage.

The committee would have to hold a vote to send the bill for a plenary session. Or, the speaker could use his authority to call for a floor vote, by-passing the committee-level procedure.

The next plenary sessions are scheduled for Nov. 10 and 24.

Rep. Nam harshly criticized leaders of the main opposition Democratic Party for impeding parliamentary procedures.

Lawmakers of the DP and other left-leaning parties occupied the committee’s main conference room, blocking Nam and other GNP members from entering.

“I will put up with this for a little more, because I want a peaceful process and to prevent a physical clash between lawmakers,” the lawmakers said.

Leaders of the GNP and the DP met several times to work out a breakthrough, but a compromise was seen as unlikely as liberals stuck to their hard-line stance on the proposed Investor-State Dispute settlement mechanism.

Opposition groups demand the ISD clauses be deleted from the agreement, claiming that they would allow American investors to dispute the Korean government’s policies for local industries in international courts.

They warned once again Thursday that they would use all possible means to block the GNP’s attempt to unilaterally pass the trade bill. The GNP controls 168 seats in a 299-member unicameral parliament.

The GNP, however, rejects the demand as being “unreasonable,” saying the pact has been long studied by the Korean side and that the U.S. has already ratified its part of the deal.

The Korea-U.S. FTA was first signed in 2007 and then modified last year. Korea’s opposition groups claim that the balance of interests swung in favor of the U.S. during the re-negotiation, which was initiated at the request of the U.S. The U.S. Congress ratified its part of the deal last month.

By Lee Sun-young