South Korean Opposition Delays Free Trade Vote

In South Korea, opposition politicians have delayed the ratification of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. The U.S. Congress has ratified the pact. But in South Korea, thousands of opponents have been holding angry street rallies, and a rising mood of anti-American sentiment is helping their cause.

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Lawmakers in South Korea have a reputation for getting physical to get what they want. The latest issue roiling the South Korean parliament is the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. This was first signed four years ago, though it was renegotiated in December. The South Korean parliament still needs to ratify it. And as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, some lawmakers there are taking dramatic steps to stop it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The yeas are 278 and the nays are 151. The bill is passed.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: When the new bill passed the U.S. Congress last month, hopes were raised that it was a done deal.

PRESIDENT LEE MYUNG-BAK: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LIM: This will open a new chapter in bilateral relations, promised South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, as he addressed Congress on a trip to the U.S. But that chapter hasn't started quite as he expected.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Police were forced to turn water cannons on thousands of anti-FTA protestors, who turned out at the weekend in Seoul. This after a feisty week in parliament. Opposition politicians barricaded themselves in the committee room where the bill was supposed to be discussed, and refused to open the door. Nine days later, they're still in there.

The I'm-not-coming-out method is heartily supported by protestor Lee Gang-sil. She's been on a hunger strike for the past 16 days to protest against the bill.

LEE GANG-SIL: (Through translator) This will be very, very damaging for South Korea. Not only for people working in the agricultural sector, but also in trade generally. We fear the market will be dominated by the U.S. Our economic independence is going to vanish.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

LIM: She attended a candlelight vigil last night where there was a mood of defiance. Journalist Kim Moon-song was also there, waving his candle. He, like many others, is unhappy at one particular clause, the Investor State Dispute settlements provision. This allows American companies to bring suits against the Korean government before international arbitration, a fact which many feel leaves South Korea vulnerable. Protestor Kim says anti-U.S. sentiment is also playing a role.

KIM MOON-SONG: (Through translator) We feel more animosity about this FTA than the one with the EU. This means more people are attending these rallies. There have been a number of criminal incidents by U.S. soldiers living in Korea, which angered people. And this agreement is not fair. It feels like we're the inferior country and the U.S. is superior.

LIM: As he said, South Korea's already ratified free trade agreements with the EU and with Chile. And the offending provision was in those agreements. Professor Ahn Se-young from Sogang University believes the voices of reason are being drowned out or are failing to speak up.

AHN SE-YOUNG: I think the majority of Korean people are strongly supporting the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. They know that this free trade agreement is the best solution for Korean economy. The problem is that this majority of pro-FTA people tend to keep silent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: But the anti-FTA crowd is loud. And the ruling party doesn't want this to drag on. One plan is simply to move the committee room where the meeting is meant to be held to avoid the politicians barricaded inside. Another idea is just putting this straight to the vote in parliament, where the ruling party has enough seats to push it through. Even so, they know they have a fight on their hands. They're just hoping this time it won't get physical.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul.

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