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SKorean parliament braces for fresh clashes over reform bills

world Updated: Dec 26, 2008 11:42 IST

AFP
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South Korea's opposition lawmakers stepped up their occupation of parliamentary chambers on Friday in a bid to stop the passage of contentious bills including a free trade agreement with the United States.

Around 50 lawmakers of the opposition Democratic Party surged into the National Assembly's plenary session hall and barricaded themselves in, accusing President Lee Myung-Bak of "moving down the path toward civic dictatorship."

"We will mobilise 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, 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 United States 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 Friday 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 privatising the state-run Korea Development Bank.