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South Korea delays vote on free-trade pact

Wall St Journal | 10 Nov 2011

South Korea delays vote on free-trade pact


SEOUL—South Korea’s ruling party on Thursday deferred ratifying the country’s free-trade agreement with the United States for the second week in a row, aiming to strike a deal with opposition politicians to avoid a violent protest that would mar a vote.

South Korea’s National Assembly occasionally breaks down in fisticuffs during voting because it lacks a filibuster or other mechanisms for minority parties to wield negotiating power.

Since May, politicians from opposition parties have vowed to resort to such tactics if the ruling Grand National Party uses its majority power to ratify the FTA without certain concessions.

The GNP, in response, has offered assistance packages to businesses and employees who might be harmed by new competition and other changes brought about by the FTA.

But in the past month, opposition lawmakers began to insist that South Korea renegotiate the pact to remove a mechanism for settling disputes that they believe favors the U.S. The government’s trade ministry and ruling party lawmakers have countered that the same dispute-resolution mechanism exists in the country’s other trade agreements.

Last week, opponents from the Democratic Party and Democratic Labor Party occupied the hearing room of the assembly’s foreign-affairs committee to prevent its members from a preliminary vote on the pact.

GNP leaders accused the Democratic Party, the largest of the opposition parties, of setting up an attention-getting conflict ahead of parliamentary elections next April. "I hope that DP hardliners refrain from driving the FTA issue to an anti-American idea or making the issue a tool for the election," Hong Joon-pyo, the GNP’s chairman, said Thursday.

The speaker of the assembly, Park Hee-tae, postponed a scheduled plenary session where a vote on the pact was expected, saying he wants the parties to come to some form of agreement that prevents a confrontation. The assembly’s next scheduled plenary is Nov. 24.

The U.S. Congress ratified the FTA last month, more than four years after the two countries initially made the deal. The free-trade agreement has always received more attention, and been more controversial, in South Korea than in the U.S., largely because South Korea relies on exports for more than half of its economic output and has had high tariffs to protect domestic industries.

While opinion polls show about 60% of South Koreans support the FTA, a portion of the South Korean population opposes the country’s defense relationship with the U.S. and believes that expanded economic ties will be harmful.

South Korea and the U.S. exchanged about $88 billion in goods last year, with South Korea possessing a $10 billion surplus in the relationship.

—Soo-ah Shin contributed to this article.

 source: WSJ