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Trade partners seek to double rice imports
The Korea Herald
Rice-producing countries want Korea to more than double its imports to 8.9 percent of the local market, the government said today in disclosing details over sensitive trade negotiations.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry said the rice exporters also want 75 percent of the total imports to be sold directly to Korean consumers at shops and markets by 2014.

The demands are likely to inflame pressure by Korean farmers for protection of their livelihoods. Last weekend more than 10,000 farmers rallied in Seoul to press their demands, clashing with riot police. More demonstrations are planned throughout the country in the next three weeks.

Korea is required by the World Trade Organization to reach an understanding by the end of the year on how it will open its market to foreign-grown rice. In talks held since May with the United States, China, Thailand and other rice exporters it has sought extensions on quotas.

"Major negotiation partners basically agreed to the 10-year extension of the current system. We are working on a deal for all parties here to approve," said Yoon Jang-bae, director of International Agriculture Bureau, told reporters.

However, some countries are insisting that the full 10 years be granted after a review is conducted on how well Seoul sticks to mandatory imports of foreign rice for the first five years, said Yoon.

"Our position has been that the mid-way review should not affect the period of the next tariff waiver regime, although this is not shared by all the parties that we are engaged in talks with," he said.

The imported rice in Korea is limited to 4 percent of domestic consumption, or about 205,000 tons and is solely used for processed foods such as flour.

Korea has reportedly offered to raise the import quota to 7.5 percent in order to gain a 10-year extension but Yoon said some very "important" exporters are pressing for 8.9 percent or 455,000 tons. Others would accept 8 percent, he said.

Yoon also said that negotiation partners are requesting that by the end of the 10-year waiver period, 75 percent of the imported rice under quota, which is bought by the government, be sold directly to Korean consumers. This percentage is far higher than what was previously speculated, which was that 10 to 20 percent of imports.

The government officials at today's news conference said it will be inevitable for them to allow foreign rice to be sold at local retail shops. But they declined to comment on the specific volume for direct sale.

Korea needs to reach the agreement to extend its quota system this year, or risk opening its rice market fully. Korean rice is about four times more expensive than imports due to small scale and inefficient farming. The government worries full liberalization at this point will seriously damage the domestic production base.

China and United States account for 85 percent of the nation's imports. The other parties include Thailand, Canada, Australia and India.

The government will have another round of talks tomorrow with China, the No.1 rice exporter to the nation. It will also meet U.S. delegates next week. Seoul officials say a final contract with the United States may be announced early next month.

Local farmers are desperate to block the negotiations. About 11,000 farmers on Saturday marched on Seoul City Hall to declare all-out "war" against the talks. They contend any increase in the quota will also threaten their lives by prompting a sudden drop in the local rice price.

"The government should consider it from the beginning. It is the matter of our food sovereignty. The current deal will finally drive out all the rice farms in this nation," said Lee Young-ho, the policy director of Korean Peasant League, one of local farmers groups that organized the Saturday's protest.

The present quota system is the product of the agreement at the 1994 Uruguay Round of WTO talks. Korea was granted a 10-year grace period to limit its rice import through the policy.

During the 10-year period, the government introduced special loan programs for farmers to modernize and expand their operations in hope of strengthening the agriculture sector. But the efforts mostly failed and left many farmers saddled with huge debts.
MGR Archive 21.11.2004
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