South Korea's main opposition party said Wednesday it will not support a free trade deal with the United States unless a key sticking point is addressed, dimming prospects for a quick approval.
President Barack Obama signed off on the deal after congressional approval last month. But South Korea's opposition lawmakers have refused to ratify the deal, arguing it favors Washington.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak offered Tuesday to reopen negotiations with the United States if opponents in parliament vote for ratification. But the opposition Democratic Party rebuffed Lee on Wednesday, saying negotiations should take place first.
At issue is a provision that opponents say would allow investors to take disputes falling under the agreement's jurisdiction to a U.S.-influenced international arbitration panel.
Kim Do-jong, a political scientist at Seoul's Myongji University, said Lee's ruling party commands a majority in parliament but won't force the deal through out of worries over a public backlash ahead of next year's parliamentary and presidential elections.
Since being signed in 2007, the deal has been delayed by changes in governments in both countries, the global financial crisis and American demands that South Korea take steps to reduce an imbalance in auto trade. South Korea eventually compromised and addressed U.S. worries on cars.
The deal would be America's biggest free-trade agreement since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
Two-way trade between South Korea and the United States totaled about $90 billion last year, according to Seoul's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.