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Minister hints at possible opening of rice market

South Korea will soon decide whether to open its rice market to foreign suppliers, the agriculture minister said Monday, a move that has been postponed for the past 20 years in exchange for a large import quota.

   "The country must give its decision on whether to open its rice market to the World Trade Organization (WTO) by September," Lee Dong-phil said in an exclusive interview with Yonhap. "The government will make its decision by June."

   Under a 1993 agreement with the WTO, the country was allowed to put off liberalizing its rice market until 2004 in exchange for importing up to 4 percent of its annual rice consumption. The agreement was extended for another 10 years by a later agreement, in which the country agreed to expand its import quota to 7.96 percent of total consumption, which will translate into a little over 400,000 tons this year, according to the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs.

   Lee said the country could try to again delay the liberalization, but such a move may not be accepted by other WTO members or benefit the country.

   "If we had switched to opening the rice market with import tariffs 10 years ago, we would not have had to take on an additional 200,000 tons in import quota," he said.

   The minister also said the Philippines, which, too, is scheduled to liberalize its rice market in 2015, has offered to more than double its import quota from the current 350,000 tons to 800,000 tons to further delay opening the market, but other WTO members have refused to endorse such a move over the past two years.

   "The government will carefully decide in a way that will best serve the country's national interest and its rice industry," he said.

   Lee said the country's import duties will likely be set between 300 and 500 percent of import prices should the country decide to open its rice market.

   "For us, a higher tariff rate will be better, but it must be able to pass WTO verification," Lee said. "We cannot just set the highest possible rate, but need to find one that is acceptable to the WTO."  (Yonhap)