SEOUL, Nov. 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's ruling party-controlled National Assembly approved the long-pending free trade agreement with the United States during a chaotic session Tuesday, after an opposition lawmaker set off tear gas in an attempt to block the passage.
The approval paved the way for the landmark deal to take effect on Jan. 1 as Seoul and Washington had hoped. The parliament also approved a package of 14 related measures needed for the deal to go into effect.
The trade pact had been in political limbo in parliament for months as the main opposition Democratic Party demanded revisions, especially of a dispute-settlement clause it claims unfairly favors the U.S.
Congress ratified the accord during President Lee Myung-bak's trip to Washington last month. Since then, the government and the ruling party have worked hard to get the deal passed. Officials say the accord will boost exports, create jobs and bolster the alliance with the U.S.
The presidential office welcomed the ratification.
"Though it went through a difficult process, it is fortunate that the Korea-U.S. FTA has been ratified today," senior presidential press secretary Choe Guem-nak said. "We are grateful to the people who have provided absolute support for the Korea-U.S. FTA so far."
Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon, who spearheaded FTA negotiations with the U.S., expressed gratitude to lawmakers for passing the deal.
He confirmed his support for the free trade deal, saying, "Despite strong objection from opposition lawmakers, I have a conviction that this is the right direction that we should follow."
Earlier, nearly 150 lawmakers of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) abruptly entered the Assembly chamber at around 3 p.m. in a move to railroad the bill. Upon hearing a snap session, some 20 main opposition Democratic Party (DP) lawmakers and minor opposition parties rushed to the main hall and protested against deputy speaker Chung Ui-hwa.
As the deputy speaker was about to hold a vote on the FTA bill, Rep. Kim Sung-dong of the minor progressive Democratic Labor Party (DLP) threw a tear gas canister toward the Speaker's seat in protest of the U.S. FTA.
As the room filled with tear gas fog, several lawmakers fled and Kim was taken away by Assembly police. Amid the chaos, Parliamentary Speaker Park Hee-tae issued an emergency order and locked down parliament to prevent possible physical clashes.
Shortly after the commotion, the deputy speaker put the trade pact to a vote and lawmakers passed it in a 151-7 vote with 12 abstentions, mostly opposition lawmakers who were protesting near the parliamentary rostrum. Seven lawmakers of the minor conservative Liberty Forward Party voted against the bill.
Opposition party lawmakers shouted and condemned the ruling party.
"The ruling party lawmakers once again rammed through a bill," DP floor spokeswoman Kim Yoo-jung said. "Their act cannot be pardoned."
In protest of the GNP's railroading of the bill, DP leader Sohn Hak-kyu said his party will boycott all parliamentary sessions, which are currently reviewing next year's budget plans. The deadline for the budget bill is set for Dec. 2.
GNP spokesman Kim Ki-hyun said at a briefing. "Although there were some lawmakers within the DP who made efforts to negotiate (over the FTA), its leadership refused dialogue and compromise till the end."
Rep. Jeong Tae-geun, who has been on a hunger strike for 10 days in a call for bipartisan efforts to pass the bill without scuffles, also apologized for another ugly scene at the parliament.
"We will regret our wrongdoing," said Jeong, who vowed to give up his candidacy in the next general election if the FTA bill passes in a scuffle along with 21 other lawmakers earlier this year, including GNP floor leader Hwang Woo-yea and Trade Committee Chairman Nam Kyung-pil. Cheong said he and other colleagues will announce their plans for the next election soon.
Civic activists and labor groups criticized the ruling party's unilateral passage of the trade pact.
"Passing the ratification bill like this deprives people of their rights," said Lee Tae-ho, director of People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a left-leaning civic group, calling the move a "trade coup."
The Federation of Korean Trade Unions said in a statement that the trade deal is nothing more than a "humiliating" agreement that threatens the livelihoods of workers and ordinary people here.
"We cannot help but raise questions about which country the GNP belongs to and works for," it said. "There is no doubt that the FTA is a humiliating treaty that only represents the interests of the U.S."
"We will hold those who deprived the workers and the public of the right of life accountable, while working together with other conscientious forces to bring them to justice," it added.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a more militant umbrella labor body, also said in a statement that it will cooperate with opposition lawmakers, civic groups and citizens to "dismantle" the GNP and call for the resignation of the President Lee Myung-bak government for railroading the trade deal.
Protesters took to the streets to voice their discontent with the parliamentary ratification of the FTA. As of 9 p.m., about 2,500 people were marching through the central Seoul, police said.
There were some scuffles as police tried to block them from advancing by using water cannons. There were no serious injuries reported but around 10 people have been taken into custody, according to police.
The standoff between police and protesters continued and the number of demonstrators is expected to grow, police and witnesses said.