| Tough Demands Lead Seoul to Extend Rice Talks Beyond This Month|
Yonhap Thursday September 2, 9:38 AM
SEOUL, Sept 2 Asia Pulse - Faced with "excessive demands" from its major trading partners, South Korea has decided to extend discussions on the opening of its rice market, a top negotiator said Thursday.
"We've decided to continue negotiations beyond the September deadline to protect the local rice industry as much as possible," said Youn Jang-bae, chief of the international agriculture bureau at the Agriculture Ministry. "We'll do our best to wrap them up by the end of this year."
Under international trade protocol, South Korea was deemed required to complete its bilateral rice talks with nine trading partners, including the United States and China, by September, so that the remaining three months could be used to review the agreement among World Trade Organization (WTO) members.
South Korea is supposed to complete negotiations with WTO members over the opening of the rice market by the end of 2004, because the 1994 Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations expires this year.
"Given the progress of negotiations we've made so far, however, it is impossible to finish them as planned. We will persuade the parties concerned to agree to extend talks," he said.
Without specifying the countries or terms involved, Youn said their push for an agenda was "excessive" and cast a shadow over South Korea's hope to maintain the right to limit rice imports to 4 percent of domestic consumption.
"There are quantity and quality issues involved," he said, noting that the rice-exporting countries want to sell their rice to local consumers directly, as well as see the amount of import rise significantly. "During negotiations, we always say that we will have no choice but to shift to a tariff system if their demands are too much like this."
Government officials here implicitly admit that South Korea will have to raise its import quota beyond 4 percent or shift to a tariff system, despite protest from local farmers. They hope to negotiate better terms in either case.
The price of South Korean rice is four times higher than international prices, and the surplus reached 7.63 million seok in 2003. One seok equals 144 kilograms.
Under the 1994 Uruguay Round agreement, South Korea was given a grace period of 10 years to enjoy special treatment regarding rice imports.
Since 1995, South Korea has gradually increased rice imports to about 200,000 tons in return for the treatment, called minimal market access (MMA).
This year's rice market negotiations are being held separately from the WTO Doha Development Agenda talks. WTO members launched a new round of trade talks in Doha, Qatar in 2001, with the end of 2004 as the deadline.
Youn was adamant that South Korea will not link the rice issue to other trade items or deals, suggesting that a few countries asked for a trade-off during negotiations.
"Some countries raised a wide range of issues irrelevant to the rice talks, including quarantine. Because they were directly concerned with public health and other issues, we refused to discuss them," he said.