South Korean farmers: The WTO's most lethal enemy

Is the price of rice in South Korea worth suicide and despair?

Published December 13, 2005 12:11AM (EST)

Nobody does anti-globalization protests like South Korean farmers. At the 2003 WTO summit in Cancun, Mexico, activist Lee Kyung-hae stabbed himself to death after unfurling a banner that declared "WTO kills farmers." Early this year, in November, two more farmers committed suicide by drinking insecticide. Small wonder, then, that the 9,000 police mobilized for this week's WTO summit in Hong Kong are reported to be targeting some 1,500 visiting South Koreans as public order enemy No. 1.

The farmers are angry about the proposed liberalization of rice imports into South Korea. On Nov. 23, the South Korean parliament passed a bill that will raise the current rice import quota from 4 percent to 7.96 percent by 2014. South Korea currently imports about 200,000 tons of rice a year -- and South Koreans pay five times as much for rice as it sells for on the open market.

Liberalizing rice imports is part of the bargain South Korea committed to when it joined the WTO. So when Korean farmers attack the World Trade Organization as the destroyer of their livelihood they are wholly correct. It is therefore not hard to understand why other anti-globalization activists have adopted their cause.

But the closer you look at the plight of the South Korean farmer, the more complicated their situation becomes. No doubt. Few images are as redolent of the idea of the undeveloped Third World as that of the rice farmer trudging through a paddy behind a water buffalo, but the truth is that South Korea is a high-tech powerhouse, one of the most prosperous beneficiaries of globalization in the world.

At the heart of the current WTO impasse is a showdown between developing and developed nations over agricultural subsidies. But in that face-off, South Korea belongs on the rich side of the dividing line. What separates South Korea from the United States, for example, with its extensive cotton subsidies, or the European Union, with its sheafs of tariffs on scores of food-related items?

It might just be, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, that the U.S. is better at playing a hypocritical free-trade game, by disguising its subsidies as allowable "exemptions." There's also the paradox that increased imports of rice to South Korea are likely to come from the United States (as well as China and Thailand). Should U.S. farmers get to benefit at the expense of South Korean farmers? That sure doesn't seem fair. Then again, U.S. workers have been losing out to lower-cost South Korean workers for decades, so maybe turnabout is fair play.

But one should be skeptical when anti-globalization activists point to the plummeting number of farmers in South Korea (from 6 million to 3.5 million over the last 12 years) as an example of the harm wrought by the WTO. During that same period, South Korea's economy grew steadily. And one of the things that happens as countries develop, industrialize and achieve ever higher standards of living is that the proportion of farmers in the overall citizenry falls.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out this week. There's no doubt that there is much worthy of protest at the WTO. But I'm not sure lowering the price of rice in South Korea is one of them.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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