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City scope: growing concerns

Matthew Lamers in Seoul

 

A free-trade agreement under negotiation between Seoul and Beijing may well provide a boon for corporations on both sides of the Yellow Sea. But from speaking to ordinary South Koreans (and as demonstrated by recent protests here, mainly by farmers), it seems public opinion is very much divided on what they themselves stand to gain from the deal. While it is acknowledged that any agreement will likely lower consumer prices south of the demilitarised zone, the biggest fears are for South Korea's agricultural sector - and, in fact, of those questioned by Post Magazine, almost all insisted they would not purchase Chinese rice even at half the price of the home-grown grain.

Ko Chang-jin, 64, runs a blueberry farm in Paju, 30 kilometres north of the capital. He is in favour of a trade accord but thinks Korean farmers would ultimately lose out.

"It will be hard to compete with Chinese products [on price]," he says, but suggests that one lifeline for producers could be in organic farming.

In terms of his own future, he is not worried, insisting blueberry farms in Korea are better run than those in China.

Twenty-six-year-old Na-hyun, meanwhile, works for Korea's largest conglomerate, Samsung - but she is against the deal. As with Ko, the mother of two's main objections are based on the impact the agreement would have on agricultural competitiveness. Other opponents cite fears over food safety or the lower labour costs in China, which they reason might drive down wages at home.

Against such concerns, however, there are those who argue the pact is an opportunity to boost Korea's cultural standing in the world and build on the "Korean Wave" - which has included the overseas success of television dramas such as A Gentleman's Dignity, the pop group T-ara, and, of course, Psy's hit record Gangnam Style. Korean TV shows have, in fact, been so popular in China that, since 2006, Beijing has restricted the numbers allowed to air.

With the next round of negotiations set for next month, most see a deal as inevitable.

"It seems natural that it should be so," says Emily Kang, a Seoul native. While she harbours apprehensions about China's "immense amounts of resources, finances and manpower", the 34-year-old, who works in tourism, believes her own sector, and manufacturing, would benefit. And while it's hard to find any-one else who will admit it, Kang speaks frankly. Would she buy Chinese rice at half the price of Korean rice? "Yes."

 

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