- - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

SEOUL — Amid billowing tear gas, South Korea’s ruling party rammed through parliament a free trade deal with the United States that had been in limbo since 2007.

The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was ratified after the conservative Grand National Party called a snap vote that caught the Democratic Party, the main opposition group, by surprise. The Grand National Party’s majority ensured its victory.

TV news showed opposition lawmakers shouting, then Rep. Kim Seon-dong of the far-left Democratic Labor Party detonating a tear-gas canister in the National Assembly in a last-ditch attempt to halt the vote.

Brawls are common in South Korea’s single-chamber assembly, which provides no means to appeal legislation. Mr. Kim was dragged off, yelling.

The GNP had vowed to railroad the bill through last week, after the opposition rejected a concession offered by President Lee Myung-bak, who visited parliament to plead for the deal’s passage.

The Democratic Party’s next move is unclear.

The trade agreement is the U.S.’ biggest since 1994’s North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. Trade last year between South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, and the U.S. totaled $90 billion.

“Our two nations have entered a new era of economic cooperation” with the agreement, said Pat Gaines, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.

Signed in 2007, the trade deal fell victim to political infighting in the U.S. After two renegotiations that sought to allay the fears of U.S. automakers, textile manufacturers and cattle farmers, Congress passed it in October.

Meanwhile, a trade deal between South Korea and the European Union became effective during the summer.

The Korea-U.S. deal is expected to begin implementation in January. Proponents say it will boost two-way trade by 10 percent a year.

Local farmers are widely expected to suffer in the deal, but polls have consistently shown public support for it. The pact grants Korean exporters price advantages against Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese competitors in the world’s largest market.

The deal also been seen as another pillar in the U.S.-Korea security alliance.

“I think the majority of Koreans support the [free-trade act] as we understand that this is not only an economic issue but a security issue, too,” said Hahm Sung-deuk, a politics professor of Korea University.

However, the trade agreement became a political football. The Democratic Party, under the leadership of President Roh Moo-hyun, had proposed the deal and signed it, only to oppose its ratification later.

“The [Democratic Party] wanted to make a grand coalition against the ruling party, so they had to go with the extreme liberals,” Mr. Hahm said. “Even though the number of extreme liberals is small, there are many civic organizations that support them and, in elections, they are very active campaigners.”

South Korea’s economy is expected to grow almost 4 percent this year. But average Koreans are frustrated with record-high household debt and the highest inflation rate in seven years, elements that have generated dissatisfaction with the ruling party and the president.

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