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November 08, 2011

South Korean Opposition Raises New Objections to US Trade Pact

South Korea's governing party says it intends to have the National Assembly quickly ratify a critical trade agreement with the United States. But that could lead to rival lawmakers again coming to blows - something that takes place from time to time in South Korea.   

New objections raised by opposition politicians have been thwarting the South Korean government's desire to finally ratify a major trade pact signed with the United States nearly four-and-half years ago.

Electoral background

Some politicians are hoping last-minute negotiations prevent what could turn into a physical clash between lawmakers.

The Grand National Party has enough votes in the National Assembly to push through ratification, even if all assembly members from opposition parties object. But, with legislative and presidential elections on the horizon for next year, the governing party wants to avoid strong-arm measures that could further erode its public support.

Although the South Korean political opposition, led by the Democratic Party, supported the trade deal when it was in power under the previous administration, in 2007, it is upset with modifications negotiated with Washington last year. Opponents also say the changes unfairly benefit American automakers and will harm South Korean farmers and industries.

Mayor's objections

Among those objecting to the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, in its present form, is Seoul's new mayor, Park Won-soon.  He is an independent who was elected two weeks ago with the unified support of liberal opposition parties.

Although it is rare for a metropolitan mayor to take a stance on matters of national policy, Park says the trade pact needs to be reviewed to determine all implications it will have on citizens and small businesses in the capital city of 10 million people.

For example, Park contends the agreement with the United States will override city regulations meant to protect neighborhood shops from an influx of competition from supermarkets and other big stores.

Some opposition lawmakers are demanding South Korean President Lee Myung-bak meet with U.S. President Barack Obama to remove a dispute resolution clause.

Investor-state dispute clause

The investor-state dispute clause allows lawsuits against governments to be settled by an international arbitration panel.

It is standard in many FTAs, but it has sparked a strong backlash here in recent days.

Supporters of the pact, say false information is being spread through social media about the clause.  For example various online messages being widely relayed claim the agreement will lead to an epidemic of mad cow disease, wipe out rice farming, flood the streets with guns and privatize medical services.

The U.S. Congress ratified the agreement last month and President Obama has signed it into law.

South Korea's government had hoped to have legislative ratification by now so the act could take effect by January First. But opposition lawmakers have occupied a committee room to thwart the deal from being sent to the full assembly.

Industry groups favoring the pact say it is expected to boost two-way trade by more than $15 billion, annually.