Farmers ploughed up their own rice fields and burned a crude effigy of the ministry of agriculture this week to send a message to the government that they want to maintain control of the rice market in South Korea. Their anger stems from the decision to open up the rice market to foreign imports from 2015, a move that farmers say threatens their livelihoods.

The South Korean government will drop its quotas on foreign rice into the country and instead impose a 300 to 500 percent tariff on imports from January next year. It maintains the move was inevitable against the prospect of the automatic increase in the country’s minimum market access (MMA) under World Trade Organisation rules, which would have resulted in more forced imports into an already glutted market.

However the farmers view it as an assault on their livelihoods and a threat to national security, and some have gone to extreme lengths to show their dissatisfaction. “Declaring the opening of the rice market means that the government has given up South Korea’s food sovereignty. We would like to announce our united fight against the Park Geun-hye administration in order to save our food sovereignty,” says Cho Sang-gyu, president of the North Jeolla Province Farmer’s Union.

Farmers and producers are concerned that the tariff imposed by the government will only last for a few years, after which country’s farmers will be fully exposed to cheaper foreign imports.
Last year – at wholesale price – American and Chinese rice was less than half the price of Korean rice, according to the Korea Rural Economic Institute. However with the expected 400 percent tariff imposed, the nation’s rice would enjoy a significant price advantage over foreign imports. The farmers at least want to see the tariff written into law and rice to be excluded from all FTA negotiations in the future.

“Under world trade orders like the Uruguay Round and FTA’s, the government is always victimizing the farmers. I think that’s wrong,” says a farmer from Jeolla Province. “Jeolla farmers are ploughing their rice farm to protest to the government on rice market opening. We were going to harvest it soon. We are desperately showing our willingness to protest.”

The government believes that the new tariff alongside the direct payment system, introduced in 2004 to subsidise farmers and stabilise income levels, will be enough to maintain the domestic rice industry. South Korean rice also benefits from a positive image among South Koreans. According to a survey across the country in June, over 80 percent of people said they will not buy imported rice and only two percent said they currently eat imported rice regularly.

One wholesaler explores ways to survive the rice market opening. “To deal with the rice market opening, I am planning to sell rice using a witty and funny marketing strategy,” says Park Han-young, a 20-year veteran rice distributor. He uses a clever pun to market his new brand of rice, which he claims other rice market producers have never tried before because they have always viewed rice as a staple product that does not require inventive marketing. His rice brand has become popular among young people online and through social networking. “Not only does my rice have an interesting name but also it’s good quality, so people won’t forget my rice.”

Market liberation may force more change in the production of rice. Currently paddies are split into an average of just over one hectare of cultivated land per farm household, which is dwarfed by the United States where rice farms hold an average of over 180 hectares. This helps the U.S. reach an average production rate that is nearly double that of South Korea’s.

Japan has also been in the midst of a similar debate over their domestic rice market. President Shinzo Abe announced plans to scrap the ‘gentan’ policy that subsidised farmers and has been discussing increasing imports in Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Japan has similar issues in the way farms are split into comparatively small fields, hampering productivity. Both countries are also experiencing a decrease in the consumption of rice due to the Westernization of eating habits. On average, South Koreans eat two percent less rice each year – now consuming half as much of the traditional asian staple as they did in the 1970’s.