’Rice, sesame, garlic to be excluded from China FTA’

Korea Times, Seoul

’Rice, sesame, garlic to be excluded from China FTA’

By Kim Tae-gyu

2 February 2012

Rice and key condiments such as garlic and sesame are expected to be excluded from free trade agreement (FTA) talks with China, which are set to start soon.

“We have agreed with China that items in the ultra-sensitive FTA basket will not be included in the negotiations,” Trade Minister Bark Tae-ho said during an exclusive interview with The Korea Times, Wednesday.

Those “hands-off” items include the three farm products that are seen as being pivotal to food security or will adversely affect farmers, he said.

Bark, a former Seoul National University professor and expert in international trade, said the government has yet to finalize the items that are too sensitive to be included in the FTA talks.

“We will continue negotiations only after reaching agreements on the list of ultra-sensitive products,” Bark said. “We have agreed with China that items in this basket will not be the subject of FTA negotiations.” Bark said.

“Mostly, agricultural crops such as rice, garlic and sesame as well as some industrial items will be in the basket. But some farm produce might be excluded. We plan to talk with related ministries and interested parties to come up with the final list.”

Over the past several years, Korea and China have put forth concerted efforts to check the feasibility of a two-way free trade deal and the initiative gained traction last month when Chinese President Hu Jintao raised the issue during a summit with President Lee Myung-bak.

Lee responded positively.

Yet, the hitch has been the country’s agricultural segment, which is feared to suffer greatly if cheap Chinese products rush into the country without the barriers of tariffs.

Due to the geographical proximity of the two countries, Chinese farm products are predicted to wreak havoc on Korea’s agricultural sector since fresh items, not frozen ones, can easily be imported.

Off course, Korea’s industrial manufacturers are expected to gain big profits through gaining freer access to the country’s largest trade partner but opposition from farmers will continue to be a thorny issue.

Under these circumstances, Bark, who assumed the post of trade minister late last year, devised the idea of two-phased negotiations — the FTA talks will start in a full-fledged manner only after exceptions are endorsed in advance.

“The FTA with China might not be a very high-level one. Even so, the agreement will have huge positive implications because Korea can be an FTA hub thereby attracting investments from advanced countries,” the 59-year-old said.

Since the deals with the European Union and the United States have been or are set to be implemented, he expressed the hope that European or American companies will set up their Asian branches in Korea where they can tap into China without worries about tariffs.

Once Korea becomes an FTA hub, companies will be able to take advantage of both the country’s advanced infrastructure and easy access to the Chinese market.

The FTA with the EU came into force last July and the professor-turned-minister said that his ministry is striving to make the FTA with the U.S. go into effect this month.

“As the parliaments of Korea and the U.S. have approved the bilateral free trade pact, there just remain some administrative procedures. It will hopefully become effective this month,” he said.

The FTA with the U.S. was originally signed in 2007 but through renegotiations, the new version received parliamentary ratifications of the two states late last year.