SKorea's Lee pushing for US trade deal's approval

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Weeks after the United States ratified an ambitious free-trade deal with South Korea, dozens of opposition lawmakers here are barricading a committee room to block approval. A ruling party lawmaker, meanwhile, is staging a hunger strike in support of the deal.

The emotional standoff over the accord, which has been the subject of a long, contentious debate since it was signed in 2007, threatens to turn into an embarrassment for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. In a rare move, Lee held a meeting with senior political leaders Tuesday at the National Assembly to try to win approval.

Washington has been waiting for South Korean action since President Barack Obama signed off on the deal last month after congressional approval. But South Korea's parliament remains divided over the accord to slash tariffs, with opposition members saying the deal favors the United States over South Korean workers.

Since late October, liberal lawmakers and aides have barricaded a parliamentary room to block 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.

Pressure is increasing on Lee to win ratification of the deal so it can take effect early next year.

"The Korea-U.S. FTA should never fall victim to political calculations. The agreement is a strategy for the survival of our country," Lee said during a regular radio broadcast Monday.

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," Choi said during an interview with PBC, a South Korean radio station. According to his ministry, Choi cited a 2007 report that said a one-year delay could result in more than $13 billion in "opportunity costs," a term referring to what could be lost in the long haul by not acting.

Prospects for the deal's quick ratification, however, are murky. The opposition wants better protection for farmers and industries and is poised to block ratification by physical confrontation, something lawmakers have resorted to before when they believe the ruling party means to railroad a measure through parliament.

"We have concerns that the current Korea-U.S. FTA ... 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 earlier Tuesday.

Lee's ruling party commands a majority in the single-chamber parliament but hasn't yet forced the deal through, apparently out of worry over a public backlash ahead of next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

Jeong Tae-keun, a lawmaker with the ruling party, began a fast on Sunday to highlight his demand for a smooth, nonviolent passage of the trade deal. Jeong, who is only drinking water, plans to continue his hunger strike until the parliament ratifies the deal in a peaceful manner, according to his office.

Since being signed in 2007, the deal has been delayed by changes in governments in both countries, the global financial crisis and American demands that South Korea take steps to reduce an imbalance in auto trade. South Korea eventually comprised and addressed U.S. worries on cars.

The deal would be America's biggest free-trade agreement since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

Two-way trade between South Korea and the United States totaled about $90 billion last year, according to Seoul's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The two countries are key security allies in Asia, with about 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea as deterrence against potential North Korean provocations.

South Korea, a major exporter of industrial goods such as automobiles and consumer electronics, has aggressively sought free trade agreements and already has several in effect, including Chile, India, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union.

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