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U.S. demand to open rice market can derail FTA talks: S. Korean minister
South Korea will have to seriously reconsider signing a free trade pact with the United States if no understanding is reached on rice market liberalization, the country's agriculture minister said Monday.

Park Hong-soo said the government position on rice has been steadfast since bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) talks started last year.

"If demanding rice market liberalization is a firm precondition and not a negotiation tactic on the part of Washington, negotiations cannot proceed," the official told reporters.

Rice is a crucial domestic issue in South Korea since it accounts for a large percentage of earnings for farmers. To protect the market, Seoul signed a pact with the United States and eight other rice exporting countries in late 2004 to control the amount of imported rice every year until 2014. In exchange, South Korea gave rice exporters minimum market access that will grow to 7.96 percent of total domestic consumption from 4 percent in 2004.

To outline the country's strong stance on this sensitive issue, the minister said, Seoul has suggested making a concession in other agriculture areas in exchange for the exclusion of rice from the FTA negotiations.

"If conditions are right, Seoul may consider being flexible in areas such as beef tariffs," the official said. The country currently levies 40 percent import duties on imported beef. He also hinted South Korea is open to meeting U.S. demands for greater access to markets for certain dairy products and oranges if the rice issue can be settled.

Park said tough negotiations lay ahead and that developments in the next week will determine whether an FTA can be signed before March 30.

In addition, the official said even if the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) declares the United States as a mad cow disease "controlled risk country" in May, it will not immediately affect the way Seoul inspects U.S. beef.

"Once the OIE's position is official, we plan to hold separate talks so that a new import safety pact can be signed to replace the one reached in January 2006," he said.

After holding eight round of talks, officials from the two countries are holding high-level negotiations in both Seoul and Washington this week. They have scheduled to hold a last-minute ministerial level meeting next week that is expected to decide if an FTA can be signed within the month.
MGR Archive 20.3.2007
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