South Korean lawmakers approve bill opening domestic rice market wider
New law draws protests. Rice is the main source of farmers' income, but local production cannot comepte with foreign markets. As a member of the World Trade Organisation, South Korea must respect the rules and open its doors.

Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – South Korea's National Assembly approved a bill further opening the domestic rice market to imports by a margin of 139 votes in favour, 61 against and 23 abstentions in the 299-member chamber.

"We inevitably passed the bill in a ratification vote. All of us may feel heartbroken, whether we voted for or against it," said Speaker Kim Won-ki, but "[g]iven that we live as a member of the international community, we have no other choice but to go this way."

Under a WTO-sponsored deal negotiated last year with rice-exporting countries, South Korea must raise its rice import quota to 7.96 per cent of total domestic consumption from the current 4 per cent. In return it won a 10-year grace period before it fully opens up its own market to rice imports.

Supporters of the deal warned that if the National Assembly failed to ratify it, South Korea would be forced to open up its markets without delay, with drastic consequences for farmers.

"Our stance is that we should have a 10-year grace period during which we should resolve problems regarding the farming sector while partially opening the rice market," said Chung Sye- kyun, head of the ruling Uri Party.

Even when the vote was under way angry farmers piled up sacks of rice and set them ablaze in villages and towns across the country, whilst others used tractors to block highways and dump rice outside provincial government buildings.

A massive rally has been called for December 1 and some 2,500 South Korean protestors are expected to travel to Hong Kong for anti-WTO rallies to protest globalisation.

Although South Korea's dwindling number of farmers are among the world's most protected, their future now looks increasingly bleak, with globalisation gaining ground and their near-sacred rice markets soon to be prised open.

Farmers in South Korea typically depend on rice for about half their income, an income which averages just 75 per cent of that of their urban peers.

the government buys up one-third of the crop as growers produce more than the country needs, but farmers are  still heavily indebted—debts increased from 23.1 million won ( (US$ 174,800) per household to 26.9 million won in 2000-2004.

South Korean agriculture, based on back-breaking labour on small holdings of rice paddy and vegetable patches, remains extremely vulnerable to foreign competition. Tariffs are among the highest in the world. A whopping 600 per cent tariff is imposed on imported sesame to keep out cheap Chinese products that would wipe out the Korean crop.

The government has poured more than US$ 60 billion over the past 10 years into rural areas, and has announced a new plan to put another US$ 100 billion over the next 10 years into the agriculture sector. But it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to reverse a rural exodus to the cities.

More than half a million farmers have walked off their farms in four years, leaving 3.4 million people earning their livelihoods from farming.

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