- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

SEOUL — South Korea’s parliament this week approved a bill opening the domestic rice market wider to imports, triggering street protests across the country and scuffles in the National Assembly.

There were 139 votes in favor, 61 against and 23 abstentions in the 299-member chamber, 76 of whom were absent. The vote came about three weeks before World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Hong Kong.

About 200 farmers chanted slogans and carried banners condemning the opening of the rice market outside the National Assembly.

Thousands of other protesters confronted police in about 100 cities and towns to oppose the vote, a farming union official told Agence France-Presse.

Angry farmers piled up sacks of rice and set them on fire on the streets and dumped rice outside provincial government buildings, he said.

In the National Assembly, opponents of the bill from the leftist Democratic Labor Party surrounded the speaker’s chair to try to block the vote but were eventually dislodged amid scuffles with ruling party lawmakers.

“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.

“Given that we live as a member of the international community, we have no other choice but to take this way.”

Under a WTO-sponsored deal negotiated last year with rice-exporting countries, South Korea pledged to raise its rice import quota to 7.96 percent of total domestic consumption from 4 percent.

In return, it won a 10-year grace period, before it must allow rice imports without quotas.

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

“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 Uri Party which controls parliament.

The government argued that failure to approve the bill would put Seoul on a weak footing at the WTO ministerial conference in Hong Kong scheduled for Dec. 13 through the 18.

That meeting was meant to set the seal on four years of market-opening talks in the Qatari capital and known as the Doha Development Agenda (DDA). The talks aim to deliver a comprehensive treaty for free trade by 2006.

Finance Minister Han Duck-soo, who is also deputy prime minister, said earlier that failure to ratify the rice deal would have hurt South Korea in Hong Kong.

“The ratification of a rice deal will boost our influence at DDA talks. Our image abroad will be damaged if we balk at ratifying the deal,” he said.

About 2,500 South Korean protesters are expected to travel to Hong Kong for anti-WTO rallies to protest globalization, which they fear would end their way of life as cheaper imports put them out of business.

Last week, about 12,000 farmers rallied in Busan, South Korea, to protest the pro-WTO agenda of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held there.

“The rice deal sacrifices farmers. The government and farmers should be given more time to map out measures to help local farmers before any parliamentary vote,” said Sim Sang-jeong, a Democratic Labor Party member of the National Assembly who was among those who tried to block the vote.

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