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(LEAD) Political stalemate over FTA with U.S. likely to persist
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Nov. 4 (Yonhap) -- The fierce bipartisan standoff over the long-pending Korea-U.S. free trade agreement is likely to be protracted further, as the National Assembly has yet to schedule its next plenary session, following an abrupt cancellation of a plenary session to vote on the bill Thursday.

   The ruling Grand National Party (GNP) has been reluctant to ram the FTA bill through parliament for fear of a political backlash in next year's general and presidential polls, while opposition parties are stepping up their campaign to resist the free trade deal with the U.S., citing an investor-state dispute (ISD) provision that they insist favors the U.S.

   The U.S. Congress approved the FTA bill last month, putting pressure on the Seoul government and the GNP to follow suit.

   In a move to physically block the GNP's move, lawmakers from the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) and the progressive minor Democratic Labor Party (DLP) continued to occupy the conference room of the Assembly's foreign affairs and trade committee. On Thursday, Parliamentary Speaker Park Hee-tae called off a scheduled plenary session as the opposition parties showed no signs of backing down from their protest.

   Earlier in the day, DP leader Sohn Hak-kyu and other senior party officials staged an anti-FTA street protest in a station in the financial district of Yeouido, to raise public awareness of contentious issues, including the ISD provision. That provision allows foreign investors to bring suits against the co-signatory government before an international panel of arbitrators.

   The left-leaning party has demanded the ISD be removed from the accord, arguing the provision would limit Seoul's policies on American investors. The government says the DP's demand is not acceptable and other FTAs currently in place also include such clauses.

   "After having adequate discussions on the ISD, we could handle the FTA in the general election or hold a referendum," Sohn said, referring to the election slated for April of next year.

Sohn Hak-kyu, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, distributes anti-S. Korea-U.S. FTA leaftets to citizens in Seoul. (Yonhap).

The GNP accused the opposition lawmakers of neglecting their duty and delaying the deal's ratification for political gains.

   "People are paying attention to the passage of the FTA, but the DP lawmakers did not discuss this matter in the parliament. They only focused on how to present a united liberal front and then went out into the streets," GNP floor leader Hwang Woo-yea said in a party meeting. "I am worried about how people will think about this."

   GNP legislator Nam Kyung-pil, who heads the trade committee, urged the opposition lawmakers to come back to the negotiating table to handle the bill in the parliament under due process.

   "If this (standoff) situation persists, I have no choice but to proceed with the ratification through the democratic process and measures allowed by the parliamentary law," Nam said in a briefing, indicating he could use his power to handle the bill if needed.

   His remarks came as the senior GNP lawmakers are considering asking Speaker Park to invoke his authority to put the bill to a floor vote in the next plenary session, as a way to avoid scuffles at the trade committee. Nam introduced the FTA bill to the trade committee earlier this week.

   The conservative ruling party has a solid majority in the unicameral parliament, but it is reluctant to railroad the bill as it could spark physical clashes in front of cameras ahead of the upcoming elections next year. After national media aired politicians' bitter fights over the budget bill, a group of 18 GNP lawmakers, including Hwang and Nam, vowed to give up the next election bid if they engage in brawls in the National Assembly.


Rep. Hwang Woo-yea, floor leader of the ruling Grand National Party (Yonhap)

Earlier on Friday, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik criticized the political wrangling over the ISD provision, saying the clause is a global standard needed to resolve disputes between foreign investors and the local government.

   "It is natural that investors try to seek security through (ISD) when they invest overseas," Kim said in a Cabinet meeting. "Claiming that the rational (arbitration) system will operate in favor of the U.S. is an insult to the international community."