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South Korea Votes to Open Rice Market

South Korean lawmakers have voted to open the country gradually to imports of foreign rice. Wednesday's vote is a defeat for farmers who fear they will be hurt by globalized competition - and a lesson in the difficulties of balancing domestic considerations against free trade.

The speaker of South Korea's National Assembly struggled to bring order to Wednesday's proceedings, before a highly controversial vote to begin opening the country's markets to imported rice.

Just moments earlier, more than a dozen lawmakers opposed to the measure tried to delay the vote by physically blocking the speaker's access to his podium.

Opposition to the rice bill did not come only inside the assembly chamber. Many farmers here view a reduction of import restrictions as a direct assault on their livelihood. Two South Korean farmers have committed suicide this month to protest trade liberalization. Hundreds of others have demonstrated against the measure over the past several weeks.

Importing cheaper rice will benefit South Korean consumers, but South Korean farmers, many of whom run inefficient operations, may not be able to match the lower prices, and some may find themselves out of business.

The South Korean rice dispute reflects the broad, sometimes painful push for globalization taking place around the world. Political leaders in many trading nations have had to contend with emotionally charged resistance from their own people, who perceive free trade as a threat to their livelihoods.

Despite the energetic opposition, the South Korean liberalization bill eventually passed by more than two to one on Wednesday. The approval came just days after South Korea finished hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, summit, which issued a strong call for concrete progress on free trade issues.

Prior to Wednesday's vote, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon warned that failure to pass the measure would diminish Seoul's international credibility. Mr. Ban warned South Korea's standing and image abroad would be undermined if the measure did not pass.

Failure to pass the bill could also have rendered hollow last week's call by South Korea other APEC members, for the European Union to reduce its agricultural subsidies. That dispute threatens to undermine any chance for an agreement at next month's World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong.

The rice bill implements a deal South Korea made a year ago, under WTO auspices, with nine rice-exporting nations including the United States, to increase its quota of imported rice by 2014.

Seoul in return was allowed a delay in implementing even greater liberalization measures in its rice market - another example of the complex considerations and negotiations that stand in the way of free trade.