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Seoul, Beijing fail to agree on opening rice market
South Korea and China have agreed to hold another round of talks next month on the Seoul's further opening of its rice market to cheap Chinese rice, since remained far apart on the issue, the Agriculture Ministry said Friday.

At the latest meeting held Thursday in Beijing, the two sides failed to narrow differences after wrangling over how much rice imports should be increased or whether a tariff system should be adopted.

South Korea hopes to maintain the right to limit rice imports to 4% of annual domestic consumption, extending a 1994 agreement at the Uruguay Round talks.

But China is reportedly pressing South Korea to adopt a tariff system rather than increase its quota on imported rice, believing its cheap rice will appeal to Korean consumers. The price of South Korean rice is about four times higher than that of the Chinese product.

Because the multilateral trade pact expires this year, South Korea may have to raise its import quota or adopt a tariff system if it fails to extend its right to prevent most imports of the grain by the end of 2004.

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

The meeting, the fifth of its kind, came at a time when South Korean farmers have stepped up protests against their government's apparent move to allow further rice imports or shift to a tariff system because of its trading partners' pressure.

On Wednesday, the Peasants League, an umbrella group for domestic farmers, organized nationwide demonstrations in which they dug up rice paddies waiting to be harvested.

Ambassador Lee Jae-gil, Seoul's top diplomat for Doha Development Agenda negotiations, will lead a South Korean delegation comprising government officials and a university professor to the sixth round of the talks.

Earlier this month, Lee expressed willingness to consider adopting a tariff system for rice imports if its trading partners push their "excessive demands" in upcoming negotiations.

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

But officials are adamant that South Korea will not link the rice issue to other trade items or deals, suggesting that China asked for a tradeoff during previous negotiations.

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 25.9.2004
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