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National Assembly in Tug-of-war Over KORUS FTA

Posted May. 23, 2008 03:48,   


With the term of the 17th National Assembly coming to an end at the close of this month, the ruling and opposition parties are engaging in wrangling over the ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

The Grand National Party (GNP) lawmakers held a protest to demand National Assembly Speaker Lim Chae-jung exercise his authority to present the motion to ratify the Korea-U.S. FTA. A group of GNP representatives visited the office of the speaker to urge his decision to call a parliamentary vote during the plenary session.

The GNP is said to be reviewing a possibility of convening an extraordinary parliamentary session from May 26 to 29. Kim Jeong-hoon, chair of the GNP public information office, said, “Now that the president expressed his regret and apologized to the public, the KORUS FTA should be passed in the 17th National Assembly.”

However, chances are high that the ratification motion will be handed over to the next 18th National Assembly, given the speaker is refusing to exert his authority to call a parliamentary vote, making a pretext of the fact that many including the United Democratic Party (UDP) oppose to this. The GNP, which holds a majority in the next parliament, decided to put the FTA high on the agenda to deal with it in June when the 18th National Assembly resumes.

Apparently, the GNP’s last-minute effort is aimed at raising public awareness of the importance of the trade deal to ultimately pass it. In order words, the ruling party intends to build up foundations for national consensus by exposing the issue to the public as much as possible through the media. Such an effort is also likely to elongate the positive momentum gained through the president’s apology over U.S. beef issues.

In contrast, the UDP is expected to stick to the additional negotiations in the resumption of U.S. beef imports, saying that there are neither negotiations for the FTA, nor cooperation for state affairs without resolving the FTA first.

The term of the 17th National Assembly will come to an end on May 24. The UDP’s political presence in the parliament will be reduced from the current main ruling party post with 136 seats to a small opposition party with only 81 seats in the 18th National Assembly. The strong opposition by the UDP over U.S. beef imports was in part boosted by Lee’s worsening approval ratings, which have recently soured drastically just three months into his inauguration.

Kim Hyo-seok, floor leader of the UDP, warned in a meeting yesterday against the official ratification of the U.S. beef imports. The UDP plans to deal with a dismissal motion for Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun over the ongoing public outcry against U.S. beef imports in National Assembly today. The UDP called all of its 136 lawmakers in an effort to encourage their participation in the session. A UDP member said, “We have secured 155 in total members to attend the session, including nine from the Liberty Forward Party and six from the Democratic Labor Party.” The dismissal motion will be approved if a majority of the number enrolled (146 seats out of 291) agree to the vote.

Regarding this, GNP floor leader Ahn Sang-soo said, “We have no intention to exercise physical obstruction to the move.” What counts in the ongoing battle concerning the ratification of the KORUS FTA is how the 18th National Assembly floor will be structured.

The UDP reiterated its position not to provide cooperation in electing speaker and establishing various committees including the standing committee, while shifting the responsibility of ineffective business of the parliament on the GNP, and even stage off-floor strife in the worst case scenario. Choi In-ki, UDP`s chief policymaker, stressed, “The negotiation for the FTA will be resumed only after finalizing the issue of renegotiating U.S. beef imports.”

A GNP source said, “The ratification of the Korea-U.S. FTA will not be possible in June National Assembly unless the parliament finalizes its floor formation. We need to persuade lawmakers even if we should make more concessions in the allotment of standing committee chiefs.”

Nonetheless, the GNP is expected to pressure the opposition party against its possible procrastination concerning parliamentary posts, telling the public that the opposition is hampering the national interests for the sake of its own political interest. The GNP also believes that a favorable public opinion will be created if President Lee steps up other measures to streamline state affairs and to address personnel management, which was not specified in the televised statement.

taylor55@donga.com srkim@donga.com