S. Korea decides to give up developing country status at WTO

SEOUL-- South Korea said Friday it has decided to give up its developing country status at the World Trade Organization in a concession to the United States over reform of the global trade body.

Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said there is little possibility that the international community can recognize South Korea as a developing country in future WTO negotiations and said a delay in South Korea's decision could undermine its negotiating power.

"We are in a difficult situation to be recognized as a developing country for any longer in the international community, given South Korea's economic standing," Hong said in a news conference at the foreign ministry in central Seoul.

The announcement came as U.S. President Donald Trump has been pushing to make sure that self-declared developing countries do not take advantage of special and differential treatment that come with the status.

Trump had warned that the U.S. would no longer treat any WTO member that Washington says is not a developing country as one if no substantial progress were made in overhauling the rules of the Geneva-based trade body by mid-October.

The U.S. has proposed that the WTO strip countries of developing country status if they meet certain criteria -- being members of the Group of 20 advanced economies, being members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, being high-income countries as classified by the World Bank and taking up at least 0.5 percent of total global trade.

South Korea meets all four of the criteria, which could undermine its efforts to maintain its status.

South Korea has kept its developing country status since 1995 to protect its sensitive agriculture industry, especially rice.

"We will make every effort to protect sensitive areas in the agriculture sector, including rice, in future WTO negotiations on agriculture," Hong said.

The issue of the developing country privileges is about future multilateral negotiations, meaning that South Korea's agricultural subsidies and its agricultural tariffs won't be affected even if Seoul decides to forgo the status.

"We have enough time and resources to brace for the impact that could be caused by future negotiations," Hong said, adding it may take a long time before WTO member states resume negotiations and strike a deal.

However, local farmers have voiced their opposition to a possible move to drop the status.

"We cannot accept the government's decision and we will hold rallies to pressure the government into retracting the decision," said Park Haeng-deok, chairman of the Korean Peasants League, which speaks for about 300,000 farmers across the country.

Political parties had mixed responses to the government's decision, but they agreed that support measures for farmers must be prepared.

"We believed that today's decision is based on the national interest and the country's stronger economic status," Rep. Hong Ik-pyo, spokesman of the ruling Democratic Party, said. "But even though the government is saying there's no immediate impact on the agriculture sector, this can't wipe out farmers' concerns. There should be vigorous support measures."

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party called the government's move "careless."

"Damage to the agriculture industry is inevitable, and the government seems to have no plan," party spokesman Lee Chang-soo said. "Did the government really try to persuade those in agriculture industry?"

Currently, South Korea imposes a 513 percent tariff on imported rice for quantities outside the quota of 409,000 tons of annual rice imports from the U.S. and four other countries under the system of tariff-rate quotas meant to provide minimum market access.

South Korea's total agricultural subsidies largely depend on the value of agricultural output in a given year and the ceiling hovers around 11.49 trillion won (US$9.7 billion).

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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