South Korea's Lee Pushing for U.S. Trade Deal's Approval

SEOUL, South Korea -- Dozens of South Korean opposition lawmakers and aides have been barricading a committee room to block approval of an ambitious free-trade deal that was ratified by the U.S. last month. 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 surprise move, Lee on Tuesday proposed re-negotiation of a key sticking point if the opposition first ratifies the trade deal.

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.

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.

Since late October, opposition 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.

South Korean legislative wrangling is centered on a provision in the deal that gives investors the right to take a dispute to an international arbitration panel. South Korean opposition parties say it will make the country's small companies vulnerable and they are demanding the provision's removal.

On Tuesday, Lee -- under mounting pressure to win ratification so the deal can take effect early next year -- made a rare visit to parliament. There, he offered to ask Washington for re-negotiation of the contentious provision within three months of parliament's approval, according to Lee's ruling Grand National Party and the main opposition Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party said it will hold a meeting Wednesday to discuss whether to accept Lee's offer.

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.

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 by not acting.

The opposition wants better protection for farmers and industries and has been poised to block ratification by physical confrontation, something lawmakers have resorted to before when they believe the ruling party plans 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 Tuesday.

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 compromised 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 with Chile, India, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union.