S Korea Parliament opens after weeks-long boycott
South Korea's new Parliament finally convened on Thursday after opposition legislators ended a six-week boycott called to protest at the resumption of US beef imports.
The 299-member National Assembly was supposed to open on May 30 following an April election in which the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) of President Lee Myung-Bak won an overall majority.
But the opposition, backing demands made at mass rallies, boycotted it to press for a renegotiation of the beef deal with Washington.
Parliamentary leaders of the GNP and the main opposition Democratic Party, formerly known as the United Democratic Party, reached a deal this week to put the Assembly back on track.
The GNP agreed two key opposition demands -- amendment of a law on preventing livestock epidemics and the opening of a probe into the beef deal.
Kim Hyong-O, a five-term GNP legislator, was elected speaker on Thursday. He adopted resolutions to set up special committees on issues such as the beef probe and an extension of the mandate of Korean UN peacekeepers in Lebanon.
Lee was set to make a speech at the formal opening ceremony on Friday.
South Korea in 2003 suspended US beef imports worth hundreds of millions of dollars following a US mad cow case. It agreed in April to resume them but critics said it rushed into the deal without securing safeguards.
Mass protests flared up, rocking the government, and Seoul had to send negotiators to Washington to obtain extra health safeguards. US beef went on sale this month and there were hopes the mass protests have died down.
In a bizarre development, small business owners hit by the weeks of disruption on Wednesday staged a protest against the protests.
Tens of thousands of unionists staged work stoppages on Thursday in what they said was an attempt to press management over a pay claim and other demands.
Unionists called similar stoppages last week against the beef imports, prompting a government warning that politically motivated strikes are illegal.
It denies the latest stoppages are related to beef.
The Korean Metal Workers' Union said 113,000 workers led by unions at four auto companies stopped work for up to four hours at 46 workplaces. The labour ministry said the strike drew fewer than 80,000.
Lee and his party got a boost Thursday with the announcement that an internal GNP rift has apparently been settled.
The GNP said it is willing to reinstate about 30 supporters of former chairwoman Park Geun-Hye. Most had bolted the party after many Park loyalists lost out to supporters of Lee's faction in election nominations.
"We have decided to unconditionally accept all pro-Park lawmakers," said GNP chairman Park Hee-Tae.
"I truly hope that the word 'faction' will disappear from the party as a result of today's decision."
The ruling party won 153 seats in April. If all the Park loyalists accept its offer, it will in future control up to 183 seats compared to 81 for the largest opposition party.
Park, a daughter of late President Park Chung-Hee, welcomed the move.
"Although it took time, a good decision was made in the end," she told reporters. "I will make efforts to promote harmony."
She had narrowly lost the GNP presidential nomination to Lee last August.