Korean Lawmakers Literally Fight Over US Trade

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 12/18/2008 08:00:00 AM
South Koreans have this seemingly unusual mode of protest involving self-immolation. This practice first reached my attention during the student protests of the Eighties, but it still continues. The anti-globalization set has made a martyr of Huh Se-uk, a Seoul cabdriver who died in 2007 after--you guessed it--expressing his, er, burning desire to scuttle the Korea-US free trade agreement (KORUSFTA). As an aside, it always seemed odd to me why a cabdriver would be so vehemently opposed to a trade deal: wouldn't such a trade deal result in more "foreign devil" businessmen to ferry around Seoul? Go figure.

In any event, the noteworthy point to me is that our seemingly docile Korean friends are nonetheless capable of stunning displays of anger. Those with an anthropological interest may attribute it to cultural predispositions to silence and conformity being shattered in spectacular fashion as pent-up anger is unleashed. And, of course, trade with America continues to be a flashpoint in Korea. Witness the nearly-successful attempt to oust Korean President Lee Myung-Bak over lifting import restrictions on US beef over mad cow disease concerns of years past. Combine anti-American sentiment with agricultural protectionism--it doesn't seem to me that Americans themselves are dropping dead all over the place consuming US beef as local fearmongers would have you believe--and you have resilient, mutually reinforcing drivers of protest.

Today's feature concerns Korean lawmakers brawling over the ruling party's efforts to put the KORUSFTA to a vote. This has apparently inspired all sorts of Ultimate Fighting Championship-style antics. From the Associated Press:
Brawling South Korean lawmakers tried to sledgehammer their way into a parliamentary meeting room barricaded by the ruling party as the country's National Assembly descended into chaos Thursday over passage of a free trade agreement with the United States. Opposition parties were incensed by the ruling Grand National Party's move to submit the agreement to a parliamentary committee on trade, setting in motion the process for the accord to win approval in the legislature.

Security guards and aides from the ruling party stood guard outside the room to keep opposition lawmakers away after the committee's GNP-affiliated chairman invoked his right to use force to "keep order" in parliamentary proceedings. Scuffles broke out as dozens of opposition members and their aides attempted to push their way into the office. TV footage showed people from both sides shoving, pushing and shouting in a crowded hall at the National Assembly building amid a barrage of flashing cameras.

Opponents later used a sledgehammer [shades of "pro wrestling"] and other construction tools to tear open the room's wooden doors, only to find barricades of furniture set up inside as a second line of defense. News cable channel YTN reported that an electric saw was used to open the door. YTN footage showed security guards spraying fire extinguishers at those trying to force their way inside. The opposition attempt failed, and 10 GNP legislators introduced the bill to the committee.

South Korea and the United States signed the accord that calls for slashing tariffs and other barriers to trade in April last year after 10 months of tough negotiations, though neither side's legislature has yet ratified it. The pact is the largest for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and the biggest ever for South Korea. NAFTA, signed in 1993, took effect the following year.

Proponents in both countries say it would not only expand trade but further cement ties between Washington and Seoul — key security allies who have cooperated on issues such as North Korea for decades. Opponents counter that it will cause pain to key sectors in both nations — agriculture in South Korea and automobiles in the United States.

GNP legislators had locked themselves in the committee room earlier in the day to head off any opposition attempts to occupy the chamber — the only place where the bill can be introduced. After a subcommittee review, the bill would be put to a vote at the committee before reaching the full parliamentary session for a final vote.

The GNP has a majority in both the committee and in the entire parliament, with 172 seats in the 298-member unicameral National Assembly. But the process is expected to be tough going because opposition parties say they will do whatever possible to stop it. The main opposition Democratic Party says the trade deal should not be approved until the government comes up with better measures to protect farmers and others expected to suffer from increased U.S. imports.

The minor opposition Democratic Labor Party joined forces with the Democrats in Thursday's attempt to block the bill [see here]. The ruling GNP says the trade pact should be approved as early as possible because South Korea — a major exporting nation — stands to gain much from the deal. Amid concern the administration of President-elect Barack Obama might ask to renegotiate the agreement [to include provisions covering labor and the environment presumably], supporters of the pact believe early ratification by Seoul could also put pressure on the U.S. Congress to do the same.
I am largely indifferent to this trade deal. There is little sympathy from me for those who invent claims about US beef being unsafe on scientifically specious grounds. All the same, I doubt whether South Korea can benefit from much "trade creation" given that the US economy is going down the tubes. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how the KORUSFTA proceeds for obvious reasons. On the US side, it will give an indication about how activist the Obama administration will be with regard to bilateral deals. On the Korean side, more fireworks should be in store. If these folks are already waging taekwondo over allowing KORUSFTA to be put to vote, just imagine what will happen when it is actually put to a vote in parliament.

Whoever said IPE was dull? Good fight, good night.

UPDATE: Ben Muse has a lot more on this kerfuffle.