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South Korea ratifies pact on rice imports
South Korea's Parliament ratified a trade pact on Wednesday that opens the domestic market wider to rice imports, brushing aside strong opposition from the nation's farmers.

The move pushed through by the administration of President Roh Moo Hyun was aimed at underscoring South Korea's commitment to global free trade but is sure to further anger the nation's 3.5 million farmers, whose numbers have been steadily decreasing in this rapidly industrializing country of 48 million people.

Farmers rallied near the National Assembly to express their anger at the move, while police blocked highways leading into Seoul to prevent others from bringing their protests to the capital.

The vote came amid chaotic scenes in the assembly as members of the minority Democratic Labor Party, which opposed the bill, occupied the speaker's podium in an effort to block voting.

Lawmakers from the ruling Uri Party scuffled with the opposition members before pushing them aside and going ahead with the vote. The bill was approved by 139 to 61, with 23 abstentions.

Last week, leaders of 21 Pacific Rim economies urged the European Union to allow greater access to its farm markets in order to rescue stalled free trade talks that are scheduled for mid-December in Hong Kong.

But their call was undermined somewhat by complaints that countries in the region, notably Japan and South Korea, also shield their farm markets from imports while thriving on exporting their industrial goods.

The voting on the South Korean bill had been delayed repeatedly over the past year as farmers staged violent protests demanding a new trade deal that would better protect the domestic rice market.

Under the pact signed last year with the United States, China, Thailand and six other rice-producing countries, South Korea agreed to gradually double its rice imports from the current 4 percent of domestic consumption to 8 percent by 2014.

The deal, which was sponsored by the World Trade Organization, allows the government a 10-year grace period after 2014 before import restrictions on rice are lifted.

But the deal has been widely opposed by farmers, who feel that their livelihoods are being threatened. Two farmers committed suicide this month in protest.

Farmers led demonstrations last week in Busan, the South Korean port city where the leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum held their annual summit meeting on free trade.

"If South Korea doesn't ratify the rice deal it promised to the international community, its standing, image and credibility will be undermined," Ban Ki Moon, the minister of foreign affairs and trade, said this week.

In a rally Wednesday near the National Assembly, 200 farmers burned a model of the legislature.

On highways south of Seoul, hundreds of farmers burned stacks of rice, straw and tires when police blocked them from heading for Seoul. Many of the farmers were driving tractors.

"Today is the day the National Assembly of South Korea gave a death sentence to 3.5 million farmers," said Kwon Young Ghil, leader of the Democratic Labor Party.

South Korean farmers are expected to take their protests to Hong Kong when the WTO meeting starts on Dec. 13, said officials at the Korea Peasants' League. The Hong Kong talks are crucial to saving an ambitious global trade pact under the WTO.
MGR Archive 23.11.2005
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