REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– It was just another bitter battle Tuesday between some less-than-stately South Korean legislators as ruling conservatives forced into law a controversial free-trade deal with the U.S.
The vote was complete with pushing and shoving, shouting and screaming, and even tear gas.
The long-stalled pact, which many estimate could boost annual trade between the two nations by 25%, had languished for weeks as minority party members sought key concessions by the U.S., which passed the measure earlier this year.
Two-way trade between the United States and South Korea, Asia's fourth-largest economy, totaled about $90 billion last year, according to the South Korean government.
Leaders of President Lee Myung-bak's ruling Grand National Party feared that any violence among lawmakers might further damage its popularity among voters before next year's general and presidential elections.
But the fight was on Tuesday as lawmakers scuffled in a parliamentary chamber. Just before the vote, one minority party legislator set off a tear gas canister, turning the hallway into a melee. Legislators covered their faces and quickly exited the assembly hall, coughing and shedding tears.
Twenty minutes later, the session restarted and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was ratified, 151-7. During the vote, the conference hall was tightly closed off and barricaded with security guards, while opposition party members broke glass in an effort to get in.
Although one U.S. trade representative called the pact's passage "a win-win agreement that will provide significant economic and strategic benefits to both countries," many in South Korea remain irate over the measure, which is set to take effect Jan. 1.
Critics say the deal allows U.S. carmakers too much access into the South Korean domestic market. They add that a dispute-settlement system will strip South Korea of its ability to defend its interests.
"As all have agreed, there are some toxic laws within [the pact] that infringe citizen rights," said Sohn Hak-gyu, the head of opposition Democratic Party.
Previous meetings over the trade measure have been acrimonious. In 2008, minority lawmakers used a sledgehammer in an effort to enter a barricaded committee room to stop the ruling party from introducing a debate on the deal.
But anger over Tuesday's passage moved to the streets as thousands of protesters gathered in Seoul's Myeongdong area, which is normally populated with tourists.
"Step down, Lee Myung-bak! Ratification is invalid!" many protesters shouted as they chanted to drum beats and claps, their green and red letter-sized signs mingling with the Christmas lights decorating the streets.
Police eventually used water hoses to disperse the protesters and arrested 18 people.
-- Jung-yoon Choi
Photo: South Korean lawmaker Kim Sun-Dong, bottom, sets off a tear gas canister before a vote on a free-trade-deal with the U.S. Credit: News One / Getty Images