Outraged farmers are vowing to fight the South Korean government’s unilateral decision to scrap rice-import quotas and open its market to foreign rice.  With a 20-year-old World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement on rice import quotas set to expire at the end of this year, the South Korean government announced on July 18 that it will opt for tariffication – converting import quotas into bound tariffs and reducing the tariffs over time.

Under the current WTO agreement, South Korea imports 408,700 tons of foreign rice annually (roughly 10% of the national consumption), mostly from China, United States, and Thailand.

The South Korean government says it plans to prevent a sudden surge in foreign rice imports by maintaining a high import duty of 300% to 500%.  But farmers worry the high tariffs would eventually fall because of free-trade deals aimed at lowering and eliminating tariffs and wipe out domestic growers.

Voice of People recently sat down with Korean Peasants League (KPL) Chair Kim Young-ho spoke.  Below is a translation of their interview, published July 27, 2014.

The government declared a complete opening of the rice market without even trying to negotiate.  This is foolish.  Even individuals negotiate with their employers to improve their lots.  But on the question of the nation’s rice, a fundamental question of food sovereignty, our government chose to throw away all the cards in its hand and opted for tarrification.  I question whether the government represents the interests of its people or those of other countries and the WTO.”

That is the charge of Korean Peasants League (KPL) Chair Kim Young-ho.  Sitting in the KPL office in the Yongsan district of Seoul, Kim expressed strong disapproval of the government’s recent announcement of rice tariffication.  Possibly because he had rushed to the interview after a parliamentary forum on rice tariffication, beads of sweat were visible on his shaved head.

The rice issue had been anticipated since the second rice negotiations in 2004,” Kim pointed out, “But government officials, having done nothing in preparation and suddenly finding itself out of time, unilaterally opted for tariffication.”

Despite repeated pleas of farmers groups to negotiate for an extension of the grace period that ends on December 31 of this year, the government announced its plan to notify the WTO in September of its decision to switch over to tariffication.

“Protecting food sovereignty through tariffication is like trying to fend off a storm with a disposable umbrella”

Kim emphasized that food sovereignty is as important as territorial sovereignty and national defense and the government’s policy on rice, therefore, requires extra prudence.

We can’t prevent rice market opening simply with high tariffs,” Kim said, “Haven’t we learned from the past 20 years of liberalization policies?  Our rice jar is not in our kitchen.  And if it goes into the hands of grain powerhouses, such as the United States and China, we will find ourselves in a situation where we have no choice but to beg for rice.”

The government says it can prevent that from happening by maintaining high tariffs, but the nature of FTAs (free trade agreements) and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is to lower and eliminate tariffs,” he pointed out, “That’s why we have been saying we have to approach this from a new angle and negotiate to delay tariffication.”

Kim’s position on rice tariffication is that there is no alternative at this point besides maintaining the current status quo.

The government argues that in order to maintain the status quo, it has to double or triple its mandatory import quota, but that’s an issue for negotiation, not something to be intimidated by and used to threaten farmers,” Kim countered.

It’s not like the WTO is giving out awards for good merit,” Kim scoffed, “We have to approach this from the standpoint of protecting our agricultural sector, as well as our food sovereignty and safety.  To say that we can prevent market opening through tariffication is like saying we can fend off a storm with a disposable umbrella.”

Kim also has a pessimistic view of the government’s plan to set high tariffs.

The government says it can protect rice by fixing tariffs at 300 to 500%, but that is an outright lie,” said Kim, “Eliminating all existing tariffs is the aim of the free trade system. Although we may be able to withstand [market opening pressures] temporarily, high tariffs are bound to collapse over time.”

On the government’s plan to invoke the Special Agricultural Safeguard (SSG) provision of the WTO to prevent a sudden increase of rice imports, he was just as critical – “Safeguards to protect domestic industries in the event of sudden import surges due to special circumstances already exist in commercial treaties.  It’s disingenuous to talk about it as if it’s something specially arranged by the government.”

“Had there been ample discussion through three-party consultations, we could have had a different story”

KPL had proposed three-party consultations including farmer groups and the parliament to discuss an extension of the grace period on rice tariffication.  The government, on the other hand, had completely ignored the farmers’ request, and only now, after having decided on a policy of tariffication, says it is considering creating a consultation framework, premised on tariffcation, and including farmers groups in the process.

What we want is not a forum where the government simply notifies us of its unilateral decisions, but a discussion with farmers and the parliament on the detailed aspects of negotiation,” said Kim, “A consultation framework premised on tariffication is of no use.”

Had tariffication been the result of a process of ample discussion including a three-party consultation, the current situation could have been different, according to Kim.

It’s too late now to discuss it, but let’s say, for example, that after considering various possibilities through discussions with farmers, we came to the conclusion that rice market opening with a 500% tariff rate is inevitable,” Kim posed, “Should the president be willing to declare that she will take responsibility and legally guarantee high tariffs for a fixed period of time, then we could have had a deal.”

As a guarantee for when the current minister and officials are no longer there and we face difficulties ten, twenty years down the road, the president needs to declare her legal and political responsibility in front of the people,” he said.

“New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) needs a party platform against rice market opening and take on the fight”

“Farmers will rise up like prairie fire across the country”

The fact that the leading opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), is not actively taking up the issue of rice tariffication is another sore point for Kim.

Opposition from a few individual representatives is not what’s important.  What we need is a clear party platform opposed to the complete opening of the rice market through tariffication and a process of discussion with the government,” he said, “It’s my hope that the NPAD will reprimand the government for giving up on negotiation and create a party platform that opposes rice market opening without social consensus.”

KPL vows to build public consensus critical of the harmful consequences of rice market opening and the government’s decision to opt for rice tariffication without sufficient consultation.  “In September, farmers will rise up like prairie fire in all regions across the country, and in November, we will converge at the capital for mass struggle,” said Kim.

On the form of struggle, he said, “Farmers alone do not have the power to win this fight.  We plan an educational campaign to inform the public that if food sovereignty collapses, food safety on our kitchen tables collapses, and will continue to mount pressure on the government.”

Since the beginning of the year, we have been discussing food security with civic organizations to build national consensus” he added, “We will fight this together with the people on our side.