[REPORTER'S DIARY]Dangerous Rice PoliticsI asked why the gap between rice prices in Korea and those of other countries has widened since the launch of the Uruguay Round. "Ask our lawmakers that question," replied an official at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The government's policy was to cushion the shock from opening the nation's rice market by lowering the domestic rice price, the official said. But election-minded legislators went in the opposite direction in order to get the farm vote.
Last year, the Grain Distribution Committee, a consultancy of the Ministry of Agriculture, recommended that the government freeze the subsidized rice purchase price or raise it by around 2 percent. Faced with strong protests by angry farmers, the National Assembly decided in the course of meetings with government officials concerning the legislation to raise the purchase price by 4 percent. Some lawmakers even went so far as to argue for a 6 to 7 percent hike.
Lawmakers, regardless of their party affiliation, are of one mind when it comes to the government's rice purchase program. Legislators from farming districts always want the government to pay more for this year's rice harvest than it did the previous year. Since the beginning of the Uruguay Round, the government has tried on three occasions to freeze its rice purchase price. Whenever it did so, the legislature launched attacks on the government.
Now the situation has become serious. With just three years left before a new round of negotiations on opening up the domestic rice market, local rice prices are six to seven times higher than the international price. Many people are concerned that once the local rice market is opened, imported grain will flood into Korea because it is far cheaper even with a hefty 400 percent tariff. No wonder that the Grain Distribution Committee has suggested, for the first time in its history, that the government cut the state-subsidized rice purchase price next year.
Although the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry agrees with the grain committee, it shied away from giving any supportive comments to the committee's recommendation. Instead, the ministry repeated its stereotypical position on the issue: "The ministry will decide next year's purchase price after considering the measures necessary to make our farmers more competitive and to cushion the impact of imports." The ministry waffled because of planned farmers' demonstrations at government buildings on Wednesday.
Legislators are already warning that lowering the purchase price will cause an agricultural collapse. There are many persons who are worried that the decision, which took the grain commissioners five hours of debate to hammer out, may be abandoned.
The international environment is changing rapidly. If Korean politicians do not ditch their old practices and continue to insist on a hike in rice purchase prices year after year, they are irresponsible politicians. If they are worried about farm income, they should increase income subsidies, which the World Trade Organization permits. Although a rice price hike could win votes, it could also cause more future problems.
The writer is a reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Cheong Chul-gun