South Korea’s opposition lawmakers stepped up their occupation of parliamentary chambers yesterday in a bid to stop the passage of contentious bills including a free trade agreement with the US.
Meanwhile, the country’s Constitutional Court yesterday turned down a petition against US beef imports, citing the lack of evidence for increased risks of mad cow disease.
Some 96,000 people signed a petition filed in June by a group of activists who claimed that the government’s decision to resume US beef imports greatly increased health risks.
At the parliamentary chambers, around 50 lawmakers of the opposition Democratic Party surged into the National Assembly’s plenary session hall and barricaded themselves in, accusing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak of “moving down the path toward civic dictatorship.”
“We’ll mobilize all possible means at our disposal to stop the initiation of the evil bills aiming to curtail democracy,” the party said in a statement.
Opposition lawmakers and their aides have also been occupying the National Assembly Speaker’s room and three other committee rooms over the past week to prevent the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) from passing several bills.
The seizure of the plenary session hall came as the ruling GNP vowed to push controversial draft laws through the National Assembly before year’s end. The party has a large enough majority to force any bills through.
The party denounced the occupations as “a seriously illegal act that undermines the authority of the National Assembly.”
Rival lawmakers and their assistants brawled at the National Assembly last week after the ruling party initiated a bill to ratify the free trade agreement (FTA), locking themselves inside the trade committee room.
A sledgehammer, fire extinguishers and a hose were used in the scuffle.
The ruling party and the government say the FTA is necessary to stimulate South Korea’s slowing economy, all the more so because of the global slump.
But opponents including farmers and workers are worried they will lose their markets and jobs. The likelihood of the US ratifying the deal also remains questionable.
Besides the FTA, there are several other highly controversial bills.
These include some allowing large businesses and big newspapers to acquire controlling stakes in local TV broadcasters.
Critics say this will only strengthen the right’s control on news media. TV workers yesterday declared a strike against new media laws.
Other bills include one that would increase penalties for libel published on the Internet, which the opposition party says is aimed at gagging Web users critical of the conservative government.
The rival parties are also wrangling over tax cuts for the wealthy, easing regulations on industrial conglomerates’ ownership of banks and privatizing the state-run Korea Development Bank.
Meanwhile, as the Constitutional Court yesterday turned down a petition against US beef imports, anti-US beef activists said the move was in breach of the government’s constitutional obligation to protect public health.
“In light of international standards and scientific findings, there is little evidence that the government failed to protect the people’s lives and health” with the resumption of beef imports, the court said.
South Korea was once the world’s third-largest market for US beef, with imports worth US$850 million a year until these were suspended in 2003 after a US case of mad cow disease.