Prime minister loses job as GATT opens S. Korea's domestic rice market

December 17, 1993|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Sun Staff Correspondent

SEOUL, South Korea -- Supporters of the recently concluded GATT negotiations argue that it will create jobs in the future, but South Korean Cabinet members are personally suffering the short-term costs.

In a mass acceptance of responsibility for the government's unpopular decision to nudge open the domestic rice market as part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the entire South Korean Cabinet tendered resignations yesterday to the country's president, Kim Young Sam. He accepted that of the most senior member, Prime Minister Hwang In Sung.

Before yesterday, the current administration had been largely stable since its inauguration in February. Cabinet reshuffles, however, have long been common in Korea.

The resignations of other ministers may be accepted, particularly those involved in agriculture and economics. A new Cabinet could be in place as soon as this weekend.

Only hours after the announcement of the resignations, a replacement prime minister had been appointed and approved: Lee Hoi Chang, head of the Office of Audit and Inspection, a critical participant in the government's popular anti-corruption efforts whose implacable efforts earned him the nickname "Mr. Bamboo."

The change in Cabinet ministers, said a government spokesman, is to continue the president's "reform drive and to prepare for the unlimited competition following the conclusion of the Uruguay Round trade talks." In issues other than rice, Mr. Kim's administration enjoys strong support and, in the aftermath of the GATT accord, shares on the Korean Stock Exchange have steadily risen. The country has many large, export-oriented companies that will benefit from increased trade. But the government remains worried by popular resistance.

Earlier this week, 20,000 to 30,000 people demonstrated in downtown Seoul. Approximately 5,000 went on to provoke a violent clash with police in front of the U.S. Embassy because of U.S. efforts during the GATT negotiations to reduce agricultural trade barriers. Some non-Asians were said to have been roughed up in the melee, and further angry protests are expected.

The impassioned response is striking, given how marginally South Korea must open its markets -- only 1 percent to 4 percent over 10 years. To support the domestic rice industry, Koreans willingly pay a high cost -- five times the marketplace and, on average, 5 percent of family income.

But, repeating a common line, several South Koreans interviewed said rice isn't an economic issue but a cultural and strategic one. Rice is a common component here of all three meals, and it is feared that opening the rice market will undermine food self-sufficiency.

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