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[Editorial] Violence-free Assembly

The Korean National Assembly has long been notorious for violence. In one of the worst cases that took place in December 2008, opposition lawmakers even brought hammers and electric saws to smash their way into an Assembly room where ruling party lawmakers gathered to table a bill on the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. They were stopped by security officials who blasted water cannons and fire extinguishers.

Every time a violent brawl broke out over a divisive issue, lawmakers of the ruling and opposition parties pledged to legislate a ban on the use of force in the Assembly. But they could never reach an agreement because neither the Grand National Party nor the Democratic Party, when they were the ruling party, was ready to give up the power to pass bills unilaterally.

On Monday, however, a subcommittee of the Assembly’s Steering Committee reached a meaningful accord to prevent lawmakers from being forced to resort to violence. The panel said a bill would be submitted to the Assembly in September and, if passed, would go into effect upon the inauguration of the 19th National Assembly in June next year.

The agreement owes a lot to the “nonviolence movement” launched by a group of 22 GNP lawmakers in December. Following the ugly melee over the passage of the 2011 budget bill, they pledged to boycott sessions that would degenerate into violence. They even promised not to seek reelection if they failed to keep their pledge.

Under pressure from these lawmakers, the GNP made a significant concession to strike a deal with the DP. It agreed to strictly restrict the Assembly speaker’s authority to refer a bill directly to the plenary session without deliberation at the competent standing committee.

For the ruling party, the speaker’s prerogative is a last resort it can rely on to pass crucial bills. But for opposition parties, it is a trigger of violence because it gives them no other option but to use force to block the bills.

The deal calls for limiting the circumstances where the speaker can use his power to emergencies such as natural disasters and wars. If implemented as planned, this accord will help the National Assembly remove the stigma of being a place of violence.

In return for the GNP’s concession, the DP agreed to ensure that budget bills are passed by the Dec. 2 deadline set by the Constitution. Under the agreement, budget bills would be automatically referred to the plenary session if the Special Committee on Budget and Accounts fails to complete its deliberation on them by 48 hours before the deadline.

The two parties also agreed on a filibuster rule, under which a lawmaker will be allowed to speak if one-fifth of legislators attending a standing committee or a general session call for it. The lawmaker, however, should stop his or her speech if three-fifths of the participating lawmakers oppose the delaying tactic.

To introduce the new rule, the two parties took a page from the U.S. Senate playbook. Yet it remains to be seen whether the borrowed institution could be successfully transplanted in the Korean legislature.

In all, the agreement reached on Monday could make violence in the National Assembly a thing of the past ― if strictly followed. Lawmakers are urged to carry out their legislative scheme as planned to clean up their reputation.
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