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Coffee shop farmers

Posted March. 17, 2012 01:54,   


Former Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon was blasted by farmers at the end of 2010 for saying, “The (Korean) agricultural sector is in the doldrums due to a large number of `coffee shop farmers.`" Kim was referring to farmers who hung around with civil servants and merely focus on receiving government subsidies at coffee shops instead of working hard in the fields. Instead of getting mad at Kim, hardworking farmers should have urged the government to give subsidies given to coffee shop farmers to farmers who need the money.

South Jeolla Province Gov. Park Joon-yung told The Dong-A Ilbo over the phone Friday, “The problem is that government subsidies are focused on certain farmers.” He meant that a small number of privileged farmers who frequent public offices take most subsidies while other farmers who cannot visit government offices are busy working. This comment is ironic considering that he has cared for agricultural administration for almost eight years as governor. Other provinces are apparently in the same situation as South Jeolla. Park said, “If we draw up a reform plan for subsidy provision based on field studies, farmers and fishermen who have received subsidies rise up in opposition.” The Korea Farmers’ League sent last month a letter to the main opposition Democratic United Party to demand Park’s expulsion.

Park has drawn up a plan to offer subsidies only if farmers build public facilities such as farm roads, drainage channels and reservoirs and turn subsidies for individual farmers into long-term low interest loans. This is because interest, even if low, will prevent farmers from recklessly borrowing money. Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Suh Kyu-yong also said he will reduce subsidies and increase low-interest long-term loans. He also proposed breaking from “asphalt agriculture” in which certain farmers take to the streets to demand government subsidies instead of doing farming.

The amount of agricultural subsidies the government provided from 1992, when the Uruguay Round Agreement was concluded, through last year reached 183 trillion won (162 billion U.S. dollars). An additional 54 trillion won (48 billion dollars) have gone to farmers since 2008 to compensate them for expected losses stemming from the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. Politicians apparently use subsidies to avoid criticism from farmers or win votes from them in elections. Farmers are known to have developed a “tolerance to subsidies,” meaning they keep demanding more assistance. Only when subsidies go to hardworking farmers instead of coffee shop farmers can Korean agriculture take a step forward.

Editorial Writer Hong Kwon-hee (konihong@donga.com)