SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean opposition MPs said on Tuesday they would end a sit-in protest at parliament and pass a number of reforms the ruling party says are needed to steer the export-driven economy through the global financial crisis.
The opposition has paralyzed parliament for about three weeks by occupying the main chamber and other facilities to physically block votes on scores of reform bills as well as a free trade pact with the United States.
“We expect our decision to lead to the normalization of parliament,” Chung Se-kyun, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, told a news conference.
But Chung said he wanted a delay in voting on contentious bills such as the U.S. trade deal and a measure to revamp media ownership rules. His party was ready to pass dozens of non-controversial bills by the end of the current session on Thursday, he said.
The ruling Grand National Party (GNP), which has a solid majority in parliament, wants to pass quickly 85 reform measures, including sweeping tax cuts, easing bank ownership regulations and privatizing state-run firms.
GNP floor leader Hong Joon-pyo told reporters he wants to start a new parliament session on Friday and approve contentious legislation such as the U.S. trade deal by the end of the month. The opposition is seeking longer delays.
Opposition legislators have said they want to block economic reforms they see benefiting big conglomerates and the rich. They also believe the U.S. trade deal will hurt farmers who will lose protection due to market-opening provisions.
A legislative steering committee met for the first time since mid-December to clear the way for non-controversial bills that could be brought to a vote as early as Wednesday.
Chung said the opposition could vote on several dozen of the measures proposed by the GNP, without mentioning specific bills. Among the reforms it sees being approved this week are measures to help small- and medium-sized enterprises and start-up firms.
But there has been growing public anger in South Korea at the parliament impasse as well as frustration among business leaders at the political obstacles to pushing through economic reforms.
Some analysts at banks, including UBS, have warned South Korea’s economy would probably shrink by as much as 3 percent in 2009.
Studies have said the U.S. trade deal, struck in 2007 and yet to be approved by lawmakers in the United States either, would increase the $78 billion a year in two-way trade with South Korea by about $20 billion.
Analysts expect the vote on the deal in the U.S. Congress not to come for several months. The deal faces a rough ride in a new Congress that is seen as more protectionist.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has said parts of it need to be revised, especially the auto trade provisions.
President Lee Myung-bak of the GNP took office nearly a year ago, vowing to make the passage of economic reforms a priority.
Local media said Lee was considering a cabinet shake-up, and there has been speculation it could include economic-related portfolios. The presidential Blue House has denied any reshuffle was planned.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun; Editing by Nick Macfie and Paul Tait