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WTO meeting to feel rice farmers' wrath
Hong Kong beware: South Korea's notoriously raucous farmers will start descend-ing on the territory this weekend to fight for their livelihoods - a fight for which a few impassioned farmers have given their lives.

With the subsidies and trade barriers that have cushioned Korea's 3.5m rice farmers for decades now being phased out, in line with World Trade Organ-isation rules, 2,000 protesters are set to vent their fury at the WTO meeting in Hong Kong next week.

They have certainly been getting in plenty of practice at home. "The WTO kills farmers! Rice is life! Protect food sovereignty!" declare the banners fuming farmers have been waving across the country since the National Assembly last month approved the liberalisation of the rice market.

"We also know it's against WTO rules but rice, which is the main food of our nation, should be an exception," says Lim Byung-hee, manag-er of South Korea Farmer's Co-operative Association. As such, the farmers want the WTO next week to label South Korea a developing country, a badge it has tried so hard to shake off.

"Korea is good at industrial products, but it has a much poorer environ-ment for agriculture than other countries - even farm mechanisation is not com-pleted yet," Mr Lim says. "Korea is definitely a devel-oping country for agricul-ture."

This logic is likely to be lost on other trading nations, but when it comes to demonstrating, Korean farmers are not easily deterred. In recent weeks they have withstood police hosing them down with water cannons on freezing days, and they even pulled over the shipping containers meant to blockade them during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in the Korean port city of Busan last month.

The issue of agriculture and global trade is highly emotional for South Koreans. one protester stabbed himself to death during the WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, and two farmers last month killed themselves by drinking chemicals, leaving notes saying they had no future if rice markets were opened.

In spite of its rapid transformation from agrarian nation to the world-famous producer of mobile phones, flat-screen televisions and high-tech ships - sectors that have benefited from global trade liberalisation - Koreans retain close ties to their own locality.

But the agricultural sector is declining in economic importance. Although rice comprises about a third of Korea's $33bn annual agricultural production, farming's contribution to gross domestic product has almost halved to 3.5 per cent over the past decade. The average Korean farmer is about 60 years old.

As in France and Japan, Korea has traditionally argued that it needed to protect its farmers for reasons such as food security, taste preferences and cultural tradition. But, it too has come under international pressure to reduce tariffs on imported agricultural products.

Under a pact signed last year with rice-producing countries including the US, China and Thailand, Korea agreed to double its rice import quota from the current 4 per cent by 2014. This was in return for a 10-year grace period before opening the market entirely. The assembly approved the changes last month.

Although subsidies mean Korean rice costs about four times the global average, with a 10kg bag retailing for about Won30,000 ($29), patriotism is likely to temper appetites for imported rice.

Lee Kyung-oh, the owner of a restaurant in central Seoul, says she will try to use local produce as much as possible. "Korean people should eat Korean rice," she says. "But, if imported rice is really cheap and good quality, I honestly can't resist using it."

To give farmers time to adjust to such attitudes, the changes should be implemented even more gradually, says Suh Jin-kyo, senior fellow at the Korea Rural Economic Institute.

"To avoid bringing about the collapse of the rice sector in Korea, we need a grace period but it should be longer than 10 years to smooth out the structural changes," Mr Suh said. "But farmers should be preparing for 2014 - they should try to increase their productivity and try to adjust to the free market system."

Some parts of the government, however, think the changes will bring about important improvements in the Korean economy.

"There are too many farmers and the number needs to be reduced," said Bahk Byong-won, vice finance minister. "We have missed an opportunity to restructure the farm sector for the past decade. We should have focused on enhancing its competitive edge."
MGR Archive 11.12.2005
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