Punches fly as South Korean MPs pass key laws

July 22, 2009

KOREA-PARLIAMENT/By Jonathan Thatcher
SEOUL, July 22 (Reuters) – A rowdy South Korean parliament on Wednesday passed a set of media and bank ownership laws that form part of the conservative government’s delayed reforms to shake up Asia’s fourth-largest economy and make it more competitive.
MPs of both sexes punched, shoved, screamed and occasionally dragged each other to the ground in the long-delayed vote on the changes which the left-leaning opposition says will hand even more control of the economy to giant conglomerates.

Changes to the media ownership laws, especially by allowing business groups to buy into broadcasters, have been among the most bitterly opposed of the reforms President Lee Myung-bak, once a top official at one of the country’s biggest conglomerates, pledged since he took office in February last year.

The issue has also deepened the split within the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) after Lee’s bitter rival to be its leader voiced her disapproval of the way the government was trying to push through the media laws.

The ruling party had watered down some of the more controversial elements of the laws which cover newspapers, broadcasting the Internet TV to prevent dominant players in the market taking control of terrestrial broadcasters.

In scenes that have become a hallmark of parliament, fighting broke out repeatedly during the session as opposition MPs, some shouting “liquidate the GNP!”, blocking many members of the ruling party from entering the chamber to vote.

Parliament security guards and pro-government legislators stood guard around the speaker’s podium to protect him from attack. Opposition MPs did not vote.

Parliament also passed a bill to raise the ceiling to 9 percent from 4 percent the stake non-financial companies can hold in financial holding firms.

One of the most pressing proposed changes yet to be voted on in the current session which ends on July 25 is to double to four years the period that a company can employ contract workers.

The government says that will make the job market more flexible and help ease the problem of growing unemployment as the economic downturn bites.

It says that thousands will lose their jobs if the current law, which expired on July 1, is not replaced.

Under the previous law, employers must turn contract workers into more costly members of staff after two years. In practice, it usually means contract workers are discarded after the time limit and replaced by new ones.

Most of the contract workers being laid off have been at small- and medium-sized firms, which provide the bulk of employment in the country.

Among other major pieces of legislation being delayed include ratification of a free trade deal with the United States.
(Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by David Fox)

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