Prospects brightened Wednesday that South Korea's rival parties could hold last-minute negotiations on their standoff over the free trade agreement with the United States after some opposition lawmakers suggested a possible concession on a key provision in the deal.
A dispute-settlement clause in the pact has been the biggest sticking point holding up parliamentary approval of the long-pending agreement. The main opposition Democratic Party claims the investor-state dispute (ISD) settlement provision favors the U.S.
On Wednesday, however, about half of the 87 DP lawmakers signed a compromise plan and promised not to physically block the ratification process if the government agrees to renegotiate the ISD provision with its U.S. counterpart after the deal takes effect.
That raised hopes for a breakthrough in the ruling Grand National Party.
"If DP lawmakers who respect the parliament make the compromise plan to have another round of talks, we will make our utmost efforts to make that happen," GNP floor leader Hwang Woo-yea said in a radio interview. "We will take the next step after the DP sets its position."
Rep. Nam Kyung-pil, who heads the parliamentary trade committee where the trade agreement now sits for approval, also praised opposition lawmakers for their efforts to find a solution through negotiation.
"I ask the DP to adopt the new trend as its official position," Nam said. "If the DP adopts (the compromise plan) and ruling and opposition parties reach an agreement, the government will also have to make utmost efforts" to renegotiate the ISD.
Doubts remain, however, as staunch FTA opponents within the opposition party, including chairman Sohn Hak-kyu and high-profile Chung Dong-young, are still opposed to early ratification of the deal.
"If the S. Korea-U.S. FTA passes through the parliament as it is now... it will worsen the social polarization and stir conflicts between classes and generations," Sohn said in a radio address, urging people to block the ruling party's move to railroad the bill.
The GNP has been stepping up its efforts to ratify the long-pending trade pact, faced with internal and external pressures after the U.S. Congress approved it early last month during President Lee Myung-bak's state visit.
The accord now sits at the parliamentary trade committee, awaiting a floor vote for final approval. The right-leaning party has a comfortable majority at the unicameral parliament to pass the contentious bill. But it has been reluctant to ram through the bill ahead of next year's major polls, which could spark scuffles in the assembly.
Later Wednesday, members of the national farmers' federation in the southeastern branches staged sit-ins at the provincial offices of GNP lawmakers in their constituencies.
Dozens of farmers occupied the offices of six lawmakers in the traditionally conservative stronghold of Gyeongsang Province, while others camped outside legislators' offices in protest of their move to approve the trade deal that could hurt the local farming industry.
"This sit-in is to condemn the GNP's move to ratify the S. Korea-U.S. FTA that could cause enormous damage to the agriculture industry," a local farmer said. "We will conduct boycott campaigns against the lawmakers who do not oppose the deal's ratification."