The ruling Grand National Party (GNP) is considering unilaterally putting the long-awaited trade deal with the United States to a vote, a move likely to spark strong opposition backlash, since the main opposition party rejected President Lee Myung-bak's offer to renegotiate a key clause after ratification.
Following Lee's Tuesday visit to the National Assembly to ask lawmakers for help in passing the trade pact, the Democratic Party (DP) collected opinions of party members and reiterated its earlier position to scrap the investor-state dispute settlement (ISD) provision. It demanded the government reach a written agreement with Washington stating both sides will immediately launch renegotiations on the issue.
Lee promised the government will ask for a renegotiation on the ISD provision with its American counterparts within three months of the FTA going into effect.
The GNP considered the opposition's demand for written commitment as another tactic to refuse to negotiate over the trade pact.
"We have accepted the DP's demand 100 percent and can't wait any longer," party leader Hong Joon-pyo said. "There is no other option but to put (the bill) to a vote according to the parliamentary law."
The bill now sits in a parliamentary trade committee.
Hong said the GNP will hold a general meeting of lawmakers to discuss the matter and confirm its official stance.
GNP floor leader Hwang Woo-yea criticized the opposition party, saying it is not sincerely willing to negotiate over the pact.
"Seeing the DP's demand after the president's parliamentary visit, I have no choice but to question whether it has any willingness to negotiate," Hwang said. "Is the DP trying to drive this matter to a dead end? The time has come for a resolution."
The GNP, which holds a comfortable majority in the 299-member unicameral parliament, has been reluctant to railroad the bill, a move that could further anger voters fed up with the partisan clash that has plagued major pieces of legislation.
With the opposition's refusal to accept Lee's new offer, the party's hard-liners have pressured the leadership to pass it in the next plenary session on Nov. 24 or on Dec. 2, the deadline for next year's budget.
Their move comes as both countries hope that the pact goes into effect in January. The U.S. Congress already approved the pact last month.
Still, it remains unclear whether the GNP will be able to mobilize all of its members to ram through the bill without opposition presence, as some 50 reform-minded and junior members are reluctant to engage in the unilateral passage, which could cause strong backlash.
The DP vowed to block any attempt to use force to pass the bill.
"If the GNP tries to ratify the U.S. FTA through brawls, which people hate and would downgrade the nation's status, it will create distrust towards party politics and the party will face public resistance," DP floor leader Kim Jin-pyo said.
In Washington, the U.S. government supported Lee's offer. An American trade official, who wished to remain anonymous, told Yonhap News that Washington is willing to discuss the ISD issue once the deal takes effect.
Lee expressed concern over the delay in the ratification process, noting Asian neighbors, including Japan and Taiwan, are pushing to expand trade ties through comprehensive economic partnerships.
"The Korea-U.S. FTA is the way to revive the sluggish local economy," Lee was quoted as saying by presidential spokesman Park Jeong-ha. "If the FTA is ratified at an early date, it could create more jobs for young people. I'm concerned (that it won't be)."
Lee made the remarks to his secretaries before leaving for Indonesia earlier in the day to attend a series of regional summits aimed at strengthening economic ties with Southeast Asian nations.