South Korea: rice farmers in battle for livelihood against plans to open domestic market

Chon Byeong-chul's sun-browned face reflects his three decades raising rice and cattle, a lifestyle he worries is in danger of extinction with South Korea poised to open its domestic rice market to outside competition.

The market-opening plan, set for debate Wednesday at the National Assembly, has drawn bitter and sometimes violent protests and two suicides in recent weeks by farmers who have railed against pro-globalization bodies like the World Trade Organization, which they say pursues a U.S.-driven agenda.

"We're here to stop this," said Chon, 53, who prayed and chanted slogans Tuesday with a crowd of several hundred demonstrators at an outdoor Roman Catholic Mass near central Seoul's Myongdong Cathedral.

Nearby, dozens of sacks of rice were piled in the street a symbol of what the farmers could lose.

South Korea's government agreed to the rice market plan last year after negotiations with the United States, China, Thailand and six other rice-producing countries, and is now seeking parliament ratification.

Under the deal, South Korea must gradually double its current 4 percent limit on rice imports by 2014, and eventually fully opening the market, with tariffs still allowed. The plan is expected to pass Parliament, with lawmakers seeking to avoid potential international repercussions.

"If we reject the tariff negotiations, the WTO will file suit against us and impose customs on our products," said Han Doo-bong, a professor at Korea University's department of food and resource economics. "This will cause more damage to us than complying with the negotiations."

Farmers have argued vigorously against the plan. They protested at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last week in the port city of Busan, where some demonstrators clashed with police.

Kang Ki-kab, a lawmaker with the small opposition Democratic Labor Party, has been fasting for nearly four weeks in protest and says he'll refuse food until his demands are met for farmers to be compensated for their losses.

He acknowledges that market liberalization can't be stopped, but hopes to ease the pain for those affected.

"We've lost too much, given too much to the U.S.," Kang said at Tuesday's protest, speaking slowly through his salt-and-pepper beard and closing his eyes in apparent weakness from lack of food.

One demonstration leader said farmers would launch nationwide protests if the rice plan passes Wednesday.

Moon Kyeong-sik, president of the Korean Peasants League, argued that food can't be treated as merchandise and said nations should use domestically produced goods whenever possible, importing only products that can't be made at home.

The farmer Chon said that to stay competitive, he's begun producing organic rice in his fields in the country's southeast, so he can charge more for his product.

His ancestors have been farmers for longer than he can remember, but his three daughters and a son are unlikely to take up the trade.

"I want one to take over the farm, but that's only a hope," Chon said. "I think there's a future in farming, but my children think it's unrealistic", reported AP. P.T.

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