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South Korea farmers wary over rice deal
Jung Su Yeong and his colleagues of the local branch of the Federation of Korean Advanced Farmers had erected a plastic tent in a vain attempt to cope with icy temperatures on a sidewalk of this provincial city, which lies at the heart of Korea's prime rice growing region.

As winter approached one mid-November afternoon, Jung and other local rice growers were settling in for an overnight stay outside the district office of the ruling Uri Party of President Roh Moo Hyun. Their aim was to convey anger at a new deal to pry open the domestic market for rice to cheaper foreign imports. Realistic enough to know he could not get the deal canceled, Jung still wanted the government to soften the blow to farmers.

"What we are saying is that the government should come up with some measures to protect farmers' income before it opens the market," he said.

The protest was as vain as the attempt to keep out the cold: a few days later, on Nov. 23, the national Parliament ratified the trade deal, allowing the amount of imported rice to increase by about 20,000 tons a year between 2005 and 2014, without any additional compensation for farmers.

Under a new quota arrangement with nine countries, including major exporters like China, the United States and Thailand, imports will eventually rise from 4 percent of total South Korean rice consumption this year to 7.96 percent by the time the accord expires.

The passage of the rice agreement was accompanied by bitter clashes between farmers and the police on the streets of Seoul. But South Korea, which has one of the most heavily protected rice markets in the world, had no choice. It was obliged to open the market further as part of commitments made to the World Trade Organization during the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations.

For farmers like Jung, who depend on government subsidies and inflated domestic prices to survive, the WTO is the agent of their decline. The offices of South Korean farm groups are plastered with posters bearing messages like "WTO Kills Farmers."

Although the latest South Korean rice deal is supposed to provide 10 years of certainty, farmers are afraid there will be no guarantee if a comprehensive agricultural trade agreement is struck within the WTO. Jung and 26 other farmers from his district planned to join protests at the WTO ministerial conference this week in Hong Kong against liberalizing global farm trade under the current Doha round.

But the optimists in Seoul say South Korea has not done too badly in the latest rice deal. As a country that relies on exports like cars, memory chips and electronics for its prosperity, the agreement helps South Korea keep its trade reform credentials intact, while deferring a more expansive opening of agriculture.

"The South Korean government has shown that it will put in a lot of effort to promote a global trade agreement despite the many difficulties it faces at home, particularly in the rice sector," said Kim Dong Su, a director general in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Still, Roh's government has faced a quandary over rice policy that would be familiar to many governments in the developed world, particularly in the European Union. Seoul has struggled to protect a sector of the economy that is noncompetitive and declining, but also highly politically sensitive, while maintaining its credibility as an advocate of free trade.

In South Korea, as in all countries in Asia, rice is as symbolic a product as cheese or wine are in France. Even urban majorities can be sentimental about farming life, a legacy of the fact that many Asians still trace family links to the countryside. Adding to the political difficulties, surveys show consumers are often fiercely nationalistic about homegrown rice varieties. Rice is a staple of the diet of billions of people from India to Japan, accounting for 31.6 percent of Asia's daily calorie intake, according to 2000 figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

While Europe's willingness to cut subsidies and import tariffs on farm goods has been the focus of the global trade debate in the lead-up to this week's talks in Hong Kong, the rice trade illustrates the complexity involved reforming agricultural markets.

The rice markets in South Korea and Japan, two of the biggest consumers, are among the world's most heavily subsidized and protected agricultural markets. Until the enactment of WTO commitments in 1995, both countries imposed import bans on rice. They have remained the focus of efforts to liberalize the rice trade.

But almost all other Asian governments also protect their rice farmers through tariffs, subsidies or intervention by state marketing bodies. In many countries, even relatively cost-efficient farmers are supported under national agricultural promotion programs.
MGR Archive 13.12.2005
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