S.Korea to scrap rice import caps from start of next year
South Korea will on Friday announce plans to scrap caps on rice imports from the start of 2015, instead managing shipments into the country using a system of steep tariffs, domestic media including the state Yonhap news agency reported on Thursday.
While the possible move is unlikely to spark a short-term surge in rice imports as hefty tariffs would deter buyers from making overseas purchases, it marks a key psychological shift in a politically sensitive sector and will anger farmers worried it could pave the way towards lower duty down the line.
The ministries of trade, agriculture and finance will hold a joint briefing on Friday on the country's rice import policy, spokesmen for the bodies said, declining to give details. Yonhap did not cite sources in its report.
The shift has long been expected as a 20-year-old agreement on rice import quotas with the World Trade Organization expires at the end of 2014, with the nation under pressure to take bigger steps to open its markets for the staple grain.
"This one-sided, sudden notice without discussing with farmers is the kind of announcement you would expect in a dictatorship," said Park Heong-dae, an official from farmers' group the Korean Peasants League.
"Some managers of our group are setting up a street strike in front of the government complex to block the (agriculture) minister's announcement tomorrow."
The government has held a series of public consultations on the outlook for its rice policy.
Tariff Rates Not Finalized
The level of any import duty is yet to be finalized, but government officials and industry experts have said it would likely be around 300-500 percent, bringing prices for imported rice in line with local grain.
Under the current WTO agreement, South Korea must buy 408,700 tonnes of foreign rice this year, or 9 percent of its demand. The amount that must be purchased abroad has gradually increased from 51,000 tonnes in 1995.
Of the 159 WTO members, only South Korea and the Philippines have tight controls on rice imports. The Korean government, farmers and civic groups have been closely monitoring negotiations between Manila and WTO members on the future of its restrictions.
Opponents led by left-wing farmer groups have said the tariff would eventually fall via free trade deals, opening the door to more imports and hitting domestic growers hard.
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