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The KORUS FTA and its Implications for the South Korean Agricultural Sector

Monday, January 9th, 2012

The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) will likely finally be ratified in the near future, despite various pending obstacles such as the disagreements with the opposition parties over aspects of the FTA such as the controversial (InvestorState Disment) article. However, the long-stalled FTA deal is expected to generate considerable mutual benefits after its ratification. Upon winning a final approval from the U.S. Congress, the FTA pact became a hot issue not only in South Korea’s National Assembly, but also in various related sectors of the economy.

The biggest Korean FTA in history is currently facing a final impasse in its long, drawn-out process to be ratified by the small but powerful trading nation’s parliament. While welcoming the KORUS FTA, in spite of some undesirable specific clauses, I would like to outline the current status of South Korean agricultural sector, focusing on the historical aspect of systematic support provided by the nation’s successive administrations over the years.

The sector has so far taken the symbolic position as one of the essential tools for ensuring sustainable national strategic benefits in the long term. While reflecting the importance of the agricultural sector and ultimately anticipating political support from the industry, the last several Korean administrations have continuously injected massive accumulated capital into the agricultural sector, mostly in the form of public funding.

But this kind of boosting strategy mostly failed to deliver the anticipated results, in spite of the massive amounts of capital investments over the past few decades. This ultimately led to the accumulation of an excess supply of unskilled agricultural workers compared with some of the advanced agricultural nation’s workforces, an unfortunate situation given the gradually toughening competition in global agricultural markets.

This was exacerbated by the related authorities based in each province nationwide frequently misappropriating the allotted budgets by allowing unauthorized persons to illicitly use official funds for the purposes of purchasing non-agricultural machinery, while also using the funds illegally for unauthorized personnel activities.

This problematic system is attributable to the illegally and unsystematically operated national allocation mechanism, under which all the public funds could not easily be preferentially, properly and strategically distributed among some promising national strategic industries in the likes of the agricultural sector, etc. Most of the former administrations in South Korea who strongly needed to show an impressive performance within a comparatively short period of time were the main contributory factors to this problematic system.

With this unique South Korean political system, the wrongly utilized nationwide policy funds reportedly contributed to the accumulation of astronomical costs. Which brings up the following question: What were the resulting negative effects from this repeated inappropriate use of public funds over the past several decades? For one thing, it led to the misuse of overall national budgets, thus eventually hampering both the agricultural sector’s development, along with the livelihoods of the concerned people and other industrial sectors of the nation.

As a side-effect, nationwide potential farming ventures were deprived of the valuable opportunity of receiving timely and large investments in their high valueadded prospective farming businesses from essential public funding. They thus lost optimal application time for their independently developed advanced agricultural technologies.

Recently, despite the long-lasting negative effects of these structural problems, innovative farming ventures in Korea using new global-leading technologies mixed with new ideas are recording unprecedented outcomes in some specific high-tech agricultural sectors across the nation.

These kinds of ventures which are operating enterprise-type farming currently are leading the new trends in farming in South Korea. They are keen to learn advanced new trends from abroad in their specific fields and gain new insights from various sources overseas by innovatively applying them to their globally competitive farming areas.

Collaborating effectively with related agencies also made it possible for these innovators to lead the agricultural market, not only domestically, but also overseas. In this context, potential late-starters in similar farming fields in South Korea also urgently need to be supported and equipped with new ideas, enabling them to venture into promising markets in the short term.

The late-starters should also strategically and innovatively seek to apply applicable strategies and methods, especially in their existing professional fields, thus saving valuable experimental time.

Once these strategic moves go into effect, there is huge scope for young people who are keen to broaden their experience accumulated through their existing nonagricultural fields. This could generate many direct and indirect positive effects, such as: solving the problem of the surplus young urban workforce; delaying the gradually aging trend in many of the rural communities; and transforming the existing agricultural sector into an integrated farming community where both rural traditional merits and new types of fresh contemporary cultures coexist in harmony.

Amidst the current moves toward finally winning approval from the South Korean opposition parties for the ratification of the KORUS FTA with the United States, it is very important for the Korean people to implement various successful models for differentiated and diversified agricultural high-tech methods. They also need to apply aggressive global marketing strategies for bolstering not only the agricultural sector, but also eventually contributing to the nation’s overall prosperity and sustainability.

There has been welcome news that Korea’s agricultural exports to the U.S. market reached US$42 million as of September of this year, showing a year-on-year 18 percent growth and further indicating positive signs of further growth in export volume for the agricultural sector.

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