12/30/2008, 00.00
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Opposition occupies parliament to stop trade deal with United States

South Korea’s National Assembly has been paralysed by Democratic Party members who have occupied the main session hall to prevent it from functioning. The bone of contention is a trade deal with the United States estimated to be worth US$ 20 billion. Meanwhile consumer confidence hits lowest level in years.
Seoul (AsiaNews) – Democratic Party (DP) lawmakers have paralysed South Korea’s National Assembly. About 20 of them have blocked its activities for the past four days to prevent lawmakers from voting on some bills designed to boost the nation’s economy, including a free trade with the United States that would increase trade between the two countries by some US$ 20 billion. DP party whip, Won Hye Young, said that the protest was meant to block “evil laws that are anti-democratic and pro-conglomerate.”

Faced with the impasse, which is already having repercussions on an economy already battered by recession, National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-o issued a warning saying that as of Tuesday “I will take severe measures to ensure none of the National Assembly’s meeting rooms and offices are occupied or destroyed by anyone”.

The DP took this extreme step last Friday in order to stop the government, which enjoys a comfortable majority in the legislature: 172 members from the Grand National Party (GNP), or 58 per cent of the seats.

The bone of contention is the trade deal with the United States which has to be ratified by both national parliaments before coming into effect.

The opposition objects to the part of the deal which they believe will harm South Korean farmers by allowing highly competitive imports into the South Korean market.

The government instead wants a quick approval so as to get the US Congress to ratify it, thus removing any doubts expressed by President-elect Barack Obama, who said he would like to see the deal reviewed.

For Washington the deal with Seoul represents the most important trade agreement since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Currently South Korea’s economy is being battered by the world crisis.

Yesterday the Bank of Korea released data showing that consumer confidence is at its lowest point in the last ten years.

For President Lee Myung Bak (pictured) and his government the deal with the United States is important for the country’s economic recovery.

As part of its strategy the government has sought ratification before the end of the year and since early December it has tried to force the pace of the approval process.

Since mid-month the government and the DP opposition have been on a collision course. On the 18 the ruling GNP declared that it was no longer prepared to seek an agreement with the opposition after attempts at mediation undertaken last February had failed, pushing both sides to harden their positions.

(Theresa Kim Hwa-young contributed to the article)

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