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Seoul may consider rice tariff system
Asia Times, September 4, 2004
South Korea expressed willingness Friday to consider adopting a tariff system for rice imports if its trading partners push their "excessive demands" in future negotiations.

Ambassador Lee Jae-gil, Seoul's top diplomat for Doha Development Agenda negotiations, said the government will decide what course of action it will take in the best interests of the country when forced to reconsider the right to limit rice imports to 4% of domestic consumption.

"We are doing our best to obtain the best conditions in return for maintaining the right, but I can't certainly say whether we can wrap up the talks by the end of this year," Lee said.

South Korea is supposed to complete negotiations with WTO members over the opening of the rice market by the end of 2004, because the 1994 Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations expires this year.

When asked about whether the failure to complete the talks this year will eventually bring about a tariff system, Lee admitted that South Korea is to bear the responsibility for adopting the system, but pointed out that it does not mean an "automatic shift" to the system.

Faced with "excessive demands" from its major trading partners, South Korea said Thursday it decided to extend discussions on the opening of its rice market beyond September.

Under international trade protocol, South Korea was deemed required to complete its bilateral rice talks with nine trading partners, including the United States and China, by September, so that the remaining three months could be used to review the agreement among WTO members.

Without specifying the countries or terms involved, Lee said "some countries" went so far as to demand to link rice negotiations to other trade items or deals like easing quarantine rules.

"Negotiations would be impossible if they try to connect the rice issue with others, because it will cause a flood of other issues irrelevant to rice to surface," he said.

Lee discounted media reports that local consumers will be able to purchase imported rice at retailers under pressure from rice-exporting countries as the government has to reach a compromise agreement.

"The rice market was liberalized when the Uruguay Round agreement was made a decade ago. Other countries has already started to sell part of the quota at retailers," Lee said. Currently, South Korea allows imported rice to be used only in bakery or processed food.

Government officials here implicitly admit that South Korea will have to raise its import quota beyond 4% or shift to a tariff system, despite protest from local farmers. They just hope to negotiate better terms in either case.

The price of South Korean rice is four times higher than international prices, and the surplus reached 7.63 million seok in 2003. One seok equals 144 kilograms.

Under the 1994 Uruguay Round agreement, South Korea was given a grace period of 10 years to enjoy special treatment regarding rice imports.

Since 1995, South Korea has gradually increased rice imports to about 200,000 tons in return for the treatment, called minimal market access (MMA).

This year's rice market negotiations are being held separately from the WTO Doha Development Agenda talks. WTO members launched a new round of trade talks in Doha, Qatar in 2001, with the end of 2004 as the deadline.
MGR Archive 5.9.2004
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