[EDITORIALS]Solving the wrong problem

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[EDITORIALS]Solving the wrong problem

We believe that the Korea Trade Commission's rejection Tuesday of appeals by farmers for an investigation aiming at extending restrictions on Chinese garlic imports for another four years was correct. Of course, garlic farmers will not be happy about it, but there is no alternative; Korea cannot continue to restrict agricultural imports and risk its trade relationship with China.

But Seoul's handling of the garlic issue was riddled with problems from its negotiations with Beijing two years ago to the new decision by the trade commission. The government told the commission that it cannot extend safeguards against Chinese garlic because of possible diplomatic and trade disputes with China. The government also scurried to announce that it would spend 1.8 trillion won ($1.5 billion) over the next five years to subsidize domestic garlic farmers. The panel, by law, cannot launch investigations to extend import restrictions if the government takes action to help a local industry.

In effect, the government forced the trade panel to reject the garlic farmers' appeal for an investigation in total disregard of the commission's authority. Junn Sung-chull, the chief commissioner, went so far as to criticize the administration for treating the independent body as its subordinate agency and not respecting the panel's independence and expertise.

The Korea Trade Commission's job is to protect domestic industries from unfair practices by exporters. Similar agencies in most countries are becoming increasingly active. Korea could also operate the organization to protect the domestic markets and add power to the country's negotiating ability, but it does not.

A more worrisome question is that Seoul's measures on garlic are short on ways to reduce domestic garlic production and long on unilateral financial aid to farmers. The government did not try to overhaul its trade negotiating system or find out who was responsible for the disastrous negotiations with China over garlic imports. The government seemed to have scrambled to address mounting criticism with an eye to the presidential election in December. It may have been successful in doing so, but it learned no lessons about the future of Korea's garlic industry and trade.
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