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S Korea lifts rice import caps, but vows high tariffs

South Korea announced on Friday that it would scrap rice import caps from next year, but said high tariffs would be imposed to prevent a damaging surge in imports that would hurt local farmers.

SEOUL: South Korea announced on Friday that it would scrap rice import caps from next year, but said high tariffs would be imposed to prevent a damaging surge in imports that would hurt local farmers.

The decision to open the market was forced by the imminent expiry of a two decade-old deal on rice import quotas that South Korea had secured with the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Even though the move was expected, it remains a divisive and extremely sensitive political issue that will be met by angry opposition from farmers' groups, who began a pre-emptive protest on Thursday outside the main government complex in Seoul.

"We've come to the conclusion that there is no other alternative but to open up the rice market," Agriculture Minister Lee Dong-phil told reporters. "But we will protect the rice industry as best we can by imposing the highest possible tariffs allowed.".

South Korean media reports have suggested the tariff, which will have to be verified by the WTO, could be anywhere between 300 and 500 per cent, but farmers fear this would be allowed to slowly erode over the years.

The current agreement with the WTO provides for mandatory rice imports which this year will amount to nearly 410,000 tonnes -- or around 10 per cent of consumption.

In a statement, the Agriculture Ministry said the imposition of steep tariffs meant any increase in imports in the coming years would be "insignificant".

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