Tear gas, scuffles as South Korea OKs U.S. trade deal

By Hyung-jin Kim

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 22 2011 7:24 a.m. MST

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's ruling party forced a long-stalled free trade deal with the United States through parliament Tuesday, enraging opposition lawmakers who blasted their political rivals with tear gas.

South Korean lawmakers voted 151 to 7 in favor of ratifying the landmark trade agreement in a surprise legislative session called by the ruling Grand National Party, parliamentary officials said.

Shouts and screams filled the National Assembly as ruling party lawmakers forced their way onto the parliamentary floor. Amid the scuffling, one opposition lawmaker doused rivals with tear gas.

Security guards hustled him out of the chamber as he shouted and tried to resist. Outside the National Assembly building, opponents of the deal scuffled with police mobilized to maintain order.

The pact is America's biggest free-trade agreement since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. Two-way trade between the United States and South Korea, Asia's fourth-largest economy, totaled about $90 billion last year, according to the South Korean government.

After the deal was approved less than an hour after the tussle began, dozens of opposition lawmakers and aides — who fought hard to prevent passage of an agreement they say favors U.S. over South Korean workers — sat slumped around the chamber podium. One legislator leaned her head against the shoulder of another as they both stared at the floor in silence.

Such chaotic scenes are not uncommon in South Korea's parliament, where rival parties have a history of resorting to physical confrontation over highly charged issues. In 2008, opposition lawmakers used a sledgehammer to try and force their way into a barricaded committee room to stop the ruling party from introducing a debate on the U.S. trade deal.

President Lee Myung-bak's ruling party commands a majority in South Korea's single-chamber, 295-seat parliament but hadn't forced the deal through earlier, apparently out of worry over a public backlash ahead of next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

The presidential Blue House welcomed the deal's passage, pledging in a statement to use it as a chance to boost the economy and create jobs. The main opposition Democratic Party said it would boycott all other parliamentary sessions in protest and demanded that top ruling party leaders resign.

Lawmakers have been wrangling over ratification of the free trade deal since the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama approved the deal last month after years of debate.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk welcomed the legislative approval in Seoul.

"This is a win-win agreement that will provide significant economic and strategic benefits to both countries," he said. "We look forward to working closely with the government of Korea to bring the agreement into force as soon as possible."

In South Korea, a key sticking point was a provision that opponents say would allow investors to take disputes falling under the agreement's jurisdiction to a U.S.-influenced international arbitration panel. The opposition calls for removal of the provision.

President Lee offered to seek re-negotiation of the provision if the opponents in parliament vote for ratification. The Democratic Party, however, rebuffed Lee's proposal, saying negotiations should take place first.

Debate over the deal has been heated, with nearly daily protests outside the National Assembly and opposition lawmakers camping out in a committee room for weeks to block the vote.

Earlier this month, South Korean police fired water cannons to disperse more than 2,000 protesters trying to break into the National Assembly during a debate.

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