[FORUM]With our heads in the sandThere is a bomb of a problem that is just waiting to explode. Talking about it is like walking on thin ice, so no one mentions it. There are issues in our agricultural and fishing sectors that await our attention and debate, but everyone is keeping frustratingly mum about them.
Because of the unusual cold weather this summer, the coldest in 10 years, rice production in some parts of the country may shrink to 70 percent of an average year’s yield, and the damage to crops in the areas where the typhoon swept through are enormous. With the economy crawling, many businesses in rural areas are going bankrupt or moving their production to China. Even working teachers in rural schools are leaving for the cities. The World Trade Organization ministerial meeting held recently in Cancun, Mexico, has failed, and the pressure to open our markets is making our public jittery. The incident of Lee Kyung-hae, the farm leader who committed suicide in Cancun, also might influence the anti-globalization struggle of farmers for the worse.
The special committee on agricultural and fishing areas that was launched last year as an advisory organ to the president has not been functioning for almost two months as it adjusts to the newly appointed chairman. The grain distribution committee that has been advising the minister of agriculture for the last 16 years also has not been at work since it was re-formed last month.
The aim of the special agricultural committee is not only to deal with short-term problems but to work out longer-range policy goals and their implementation. And the grain distribution comittee has mainly been engaged in discussions on the government purchase price of rice in autumn.
But the bigger concern now is how to work toward broader goals, such as the welfare of producers and consumers of agricultural goods, demand and supply and the opening of the market and how to react to it. That is the raison d’etre for the two committees. They must persuade the farming groups to give up their extreme demands and soothe their feelings of having been deceived by the government for a long time, and they must fight off politicians who fan farmers’ anger for votes.
Mr. Lee, the activist suicide, tried to kill himself once before during the agricultural trade negotiations of the Uruguay Round in Geneva in November 1990. On his return, he confessed, “I realized that there is no defying the opening [of the agricultural market] in this cruel reality. I had been too naive. I learned that if only one side raises its voice, the country as a whole loses.” So Mr. Lee left us the tragedy of his death in Cancun last month. He had staked his life on resisting what he knew was the unstoppable trend of market opening.
In December 1993, Kim Young-jin, an Assemblyman, publicly shaved his head in Geneva to protest the opening of the agricultural market. Ten years later, as agricultural minister, he accepted the necessity of lowering the government purchase price of grains and the opening of the agricultural market. Perhaps he will reappear as a man of struggle and suffering now that he is no longer the agricultural minister?
We have to ask the two committees to focus their agricultural policies on the national interest that both Mr. Lee and Mr. Kim recognized. The present crisis is inevitable in economic development.
But in the current political atmosphere, it is difficult to expect a nonpartisan agricultural policy. Farm policies are impromptu and may trigger more extreme demands and distrust of the government. The president, after leaving his political party, has failed to acquire any new support group so far. Under these conditions, we cannot obtain a national consensus on farm policy. The special committee on agricultural and fishing areas and the grain distribution committee are about to be judged by the nation.
* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Choi Chul-joo