SEOUL — A major free-trade pact with the United States that was supposed to be a slam dunk has run into unexpected trouble here.
Dozens of South Korean opposition lawmakers and aides have been barricading a committee room to block approval of the deal, which has already been hailed by President Obama and congressional Republicans as a major win for both countries. A ruling party lawmaker, meanwhile, is staging a hunger strike in support of the deal.
The emotional standoff over the accord threatens to turn into an embarrassment for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. In a surprise move, Mr. Lee on Tuesday proposed renegotiating a key provision of the deal if the opposition first ratifies the agreement.
Washington has been waiting for South Korean action since Mr. Obama and Congress signed off on the deal in October. But South Korea’s parliament remains divided over the accord to slash tariffs, with opposition members saying the deal favors U.S. over South Korean workers.
Mr. Lee’s ruling party commands a majority in the single-chamber parliament but has not yet forced the deal through, apparently out of fears of a public backlash ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Since late October, opposition lawmakers and aides have barricaded a parliamentary room to block Mr. Lee’s ruling party from pushing the deal through.
Activists in Seoul are holding near-daily rallies opposing the accord. Protests Sunday drew about 5,000 people. Police have occasionally fired water cannons to scatter the crowds, but there have been no reports of serious injuries.
The legislative battle is centered on a provision in the deal that gives investors the right to take a dispute to an international arbitration panel. South Korean opposition parties say it will make the country’s small companies vulnerable, and they are demanding the provision’s removal.
Mr. Lee, under mounting pressure to win ratification so the deal can take effect early next year, made a rare visit Tuesday to parliament. There, he offered to ask Washington for renegotiation of the contentious provision within three months of parliament’s approval, according to officials of both Mr. Lee’s ruling Grand National Party and the main opposition Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party said it will hold a meeting Wednesday to discuss whether to accept the president’s offer.
Choi Seok-young, a South Korean deputy trade minister, said Tuesday that South Korea risks missing out on a huge opportunity if ratification is delayed.
“Our economy could lose benefits that we can obtain from an early implementation of the free trade pact,” Mr. Choi said during an interview with PBC, a South Korean radio station.
The opposition wants better protection for farmers and industries and has been poised to block ratification by physical confrontation, something lawmakers have resorted to before when they believe the ruling party plans to railroad a measure through parliament.
“We have concerns that the current Korea-U.S. [free-trade agreement] … has some toxic provisions and will deepen the polarization of wealth,” Kim Jin-pyo, floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, told a party meeting Tuesday.
The deal would be America’s biggest free-trade agreement since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.