- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) - A South Korean parliamentary committee approved a free trade agreement with the United States on Wednesday, paving the way for the deal to be voted on by the entire legislature.

Park Jin, chairman of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs and trade committee, announced that his committee passed the trade pact, despite frantic efforts by opposition members to disrupt the session.

“I declare that the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement is approved,” Park said, surrounded by opposition lawmakers who oppose the deal.

The accord, which calls for slashing tariffs and other barriers to trade, was to be sent to parliament’s plenary session for final approval. The session was set for April 29 and 30 but that could change depending on negotiations between rival parties.

Yonhap news agency, however, quoted ruling Grand National Party floor leader Hong Joon-pyo as saying that his party has no intention to seek parliamentary ratification during the current session that ends on April 30.

Hong said the conservative GNP would seek to ratify the trade accord after seeing the results of a possible summit between South Korea and the U.S. in June, Yonhap reported.

GNP spokeswoman Cho Yoon-sun said Hong’s remarks would be a “guideline” for the party’s discussion on when to seek to ratify the trade deal.

Park invoked his authority as chairman to pass the accord without a vote after asking committee members if anyone opposed its passage amid a fierce shoving match between ruling and opposition members.

Opposition lawmakers accused Park of “unilaterally” passing the deal without a formal debate session even though they expressed objections against the pact.

The passage is “fundamentally invalid,” the main liberal opposition Democratic Party said in a statement. “It’s nothing but the giant ruling party’s arrogant behavior ignoring public sentiments.”

But a senior National Assembly official said it is “unlikely” for the deal’s passage to be nullified because it was already announced by the committee chairman.

The official _ speaking on condition of anonymity, citing office policy _ also said similar bill passages have taken place many times in past South Korean parliaments and have never been overturned.

South Korea and the U.S. signed the agreement in 2007, but the ratification process has been slow amid opposition in both countries. The accord _ the largest for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s and the biggest ever for South Korea _ requires ratification by lawmakers in both countries to take effect.

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.

“The assessment on the effect of the free trade deal amid the global economic crisis and measures on how to deal with the pact’s possible damage should be formulated,” the South Korean opposition party statement said.

The GNP said in a statement that the free trade deal would make a “positive contribution” to resolve the current economic difficulties facing South Korea.

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