South Korea pass trade pact with US despite tear gas

South Korea pass trade pact with US despite tear gas

SEOUL - Agence France-Presse
South Korea pass trade pact with US despite tear gas

A security officer restrains lawmaker Kim Sun-dong (bottom R) of the Democratic Labour Party after Kim detonated a tear gas canister towards the chairman's seat at the National Assembly, to try to stop the ruling Grand National Party's move to ratify a bill on a free trade agreement with the United States, in Seoul November 22, 2011. REUTERS photo

South Korea's parliament approved a free trade agreement with the United States in a chaotic session today, minutes after an opposition legislator set off a tear gas canister in protest at the pact.

Legislators voted 151-7 in favour of the long-delayed deal after ruling party members had caught the opposition off guard by calling a snap parliamentary session.

Lawmakers coughed and wiped their eyes after the canister went off next to the speaker's rostrum. The MP who set it off was wrestled out of the chamber by security guards as he yelled protests.

Proceedings quickly resumed and the sweeping pact (first approved in 2007 but repeatedly delayed) was finally ratified.

The two sides hope it will come into force on January 1 after it sailed through the US Congress last month.

Export-dependent South Korea will then have free trade deals with the world's largest economy as well with the European Union, India, Southeast Asian nations and several other states.

"The FTA will pave an economic highway to the United States, and South Korea will leap to become a global free trade hub at the juncture of three continents -- Europe, Asia and North America," the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry said in a statement.

US-South Korean trade totalled some $88 billion in goods and services last year, with Seoul enjoying a $10 billion advantage.

One study by 10 Korean think tanks predicts South Korea will see its trade surplus with the US increase by $140 million annually over the next 15 years.

For Washington, the FTA is the biggest US trade pact since the North America Free Trade Agreement went into force in 1994.

The American Chamber of Commerce applauded the ratification, with chairman Pat Gaines saying it would create new jobs and spur growth in both countries.

Chamber president Amy Jackson said "transparency, consistency and predictability will become greater strengths of the Korean economy, and will help draw many more investors to Korea".

The presidential Blue House expressed gratitude to parliament, vowing to thoroughly implement policies to protect farmers and small businesses.

The ruling Grand National Party (GNP) has a majority in the legislature but had been reluctant to ram the bill through and provoke physical clashes, for fear of a voter backlash before next year's general and presidential elections.

President Lee Myung-Bak made a rare personal appearance in parliament last week and offered the opposition a concession on one clause they opposed.

Lee had promised to ask Washington for changes to an "investor-state dispute" clause within three months after the overall deal takes effect.

The dispute system would allow disagreements between investors and the state to be decided by overseas mediation.

Opposition parties say it would infringe the country's legal independence but the government says the clause is a global standard and is part of earlier South Korean trade pacts.

The opposition rejected Lee's concession. Activists, workers and farmers have meanwhile demonstrated in the streets against the trade pact and police have used water cannon to disperse some protests.

"We have decided to push the free trade deal through parliament by voting, as it is almost impossible to reach a compromise with the opposition," GNP lawmaker Park Jun-Sun told YTN television earlier in the afternoon.

The ruling party has criticised the opposition for trying to block a deal originally signed in 2007, when the latter was in power.

Former prime minister Han Myeong-Sook of the main opposition Democratic Party said the ratification was null and void as it had been pushed through parliament against the people's wishes.

"Aside from the (1910) forced annexation of Korea by Japan, no treaty with a foreign country has ever been rammed through parliament," she tweeted.