[FORUM]The policy results of wasted time

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[FORUM]The policy results of wasted time

There were some big plans once upon a time to turn the landscape along the west coast of Korea into a smooth shoreline very much unlike its present jagged shape.

One summer night in 1986, the late Chung Ju-yung, the chairman of the Hyundai Group, stepped into the office of the director general for policy coordination at the Economic Planning Board, an agency that later was merged into the Finance and Economy Ministry.

Mr. Chung wanted to persuade the director general to support his plans for a grand construction project that would reclaim land in 10 coastal areas, nine along the west coast and one along the south coast. The purpose of the reclamation work would have been to increase the amount of Korea's land area; specifically, to increase the amount of land that could be devoted to growing rice.

President Chun Doo Hwan had already showed some interest in Hyundai's plan. Mr. Chung was a man who did things in a big way, so the scale of the reclamation was breathtaking and would have triggered a major redrawing of Korean maps.

But after conducting a feasibility study, the Economic Planning Board was pessimistic about the idea, saying that developing more rice paddies would be a huge waste of money. Why? Its analysis showed that rice consumption in Korea would soon begin to decline. That was the first such government analysis to make such a prediction, and it surprised many people -- most notably Chung Ju-yung and President Chun.

The government decided to go ahead with reclamation at only one coastal area instead of at the original 10 candidates. It selected the Sihwa district in Gyeonggi province, which is now notorious for its water pollution.

Sixteen years have now passed since that analysis of the rice market in Korea. If the government had begun at that time to hammer home to farmers that they were in a dying industry, if it had pursued the proper agricultural policies, our rural community would have changed a lot.

If more rice paddies had been put to different uses and more farmers had changed their jobs with the help of government subsidies, we would have been in much better shape. There would have been no mammoth stocks of rice that had to be fed to livestock before the fall harvest increased the glut even more.

A former agricultural minister, Kim Sung-hoon, was typical of those who insisted that we should not produce less rice. He was also the longest-tenured minister in the Kim Dae-jung administration. He said rice was the basis of our national security and we should not open our markets to rice imports. After joining the cabinet, he opposed any trade policies that included market opening.

One exasperated senior official met President Kim privately to complain, saying the minister's stance was hurting farmers and Korea, and would trigger retaliation by China and other countries. The president nodded and said, "Yes, that is the kind of man we need as agriculture minister."

Now comes garlic.

Government efforts to preserve the rice industry for the last 16 years have left farmers feeling more betrayed than appreciative as the reality of their situation comes to light. The same goes for garlic farmers who will not be seduced for long by the offer of 1.8 trillion won ($1.5 billion) in subsidies. The question, as with rice, is not how to protect garlic farmers. It is how to find alternative crops or employment for them, a question that should have been addressed two years ago after the garlic agreement with China was signed. Some people criticize the government for trying to conceal the negotiation results from the public. But the press release issued by the government at the time explicitly announced that it had imposed safeguard tariffs that would last for three years. Then it should have been up to the Agriculture Ministry to follow up with measures for farmers. Instead, the ministry disclaims any knowledge of the results of the negotiations.

There is a controversy about whether the government deceived the farmers or not, but what does "deceiving farmers" really mean? The real deception here is having wasted 16 years on trying to protect rice farmers from the inevitable and two years wasted for garlic growers.


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The writer is a senior economic writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Su-gil

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