SEOUL - The South Korean parliament's foreign affairs committee approved on Wednesday a free trade deal with the United States signed two years ago, paving the way for the entire assembly to vote on the pact this month.
Amid a rowdy scene in which ruling conservative Grand National Party members physically fought off opposition lawmakers trying to stop the proceedings, the committee passed the deal, which some studies have said will boost the two countries' $78 billion annual bilateral trade by as much as a quarter.
But despite earlier expectations that the wider assembly vote would be held soon after the committee's approval, the GNP may not put the deal to a vote until June, its floor leader was quoted as saying by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
The scene was reminiscent of a melee over the trade pact in parliament late last year, when sledgehammer-swinging opposition MPs tried to break through a barricade of office furniture and fire extinguisher-spraying ruling party legislative aides.
The agreement has broad support among members of South Korea's ruling conservative Grand National Party (GNP) and according to surveys is backed by a majority of the public.
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But it could face fresh resistance from opposition MPs and the country's powerful farm lobby, who believe government compensation plans do not adequately address the losses that may hit farmers as protectionist measures are rolled back and competition intensifies.
South Korean officials have said an early passage of the bill could add pressure on the U.S. Congress to ratify the deal. Congress has yet to begin debate on the pact.
Two senior U.S. senators on Monday urged President Barack Obama to begin the process of passing the deal, which he opposed during last year's election campaign, saying approval of the pact was needed to help reinforce the United States' partnership with South Korea.
Obama called during last year's campaign for the South Korean agreement to be renegotiated to include more favorable provisions for U.S. automakers and other manufacturers.