SEOUL - Thousands of South Korean farmers, enraged with falling rice prices, staged violent protests here Tuesday against imports and US-led globalization as symbolized by the WTO.
Hundreds of farmers wearing red headbands battled riot police, hurled rocks at a building used by the main opposition Grand National Party (GNP), or burned effigies depicting the United States and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Dozens of farmers and policemen were injured as the protestors went on the rampage, setting lawns and trees ablaze, trampling cars and beating police with clubs. The police fought back with shields and truncheons. The farmers destroyed a truck and two cars and shattered glass gates of the GNP building. They accused the opposition party of delaying a government plan to send surplus food to North Korea.
The violence erupted near the National Assembly compound during a march by 20,000 farmers with placards blasting the United States for leading a campaign to pry open South Korea's agricultural market.
Thousands of riot police maintained tight security in and around the assembly building after thwarting a violent attempt by angry farmers to move in.
Farmers also staged scattered protests or occupied main bridges in other areas of Seoul, disrupting traffic. Some 600 demonstrators clashed with riot police around a farmers' co-operative building in downtown Seoul.
The protestors shouted "Down with US and WTO" and urged the government to raise its rice purchasing price.
South Korean farmers, already hit by dwindling rice consumption and cuts in government subsidies, fear rice will be a prime target for liberalization of agricultural produce.
At the WTO conference in Qatar, food-exporting countries have demanded South Korea open its market further to imports. South Korea's food market must be opened in 2004 under WTO liberalization rules.
South Korea has gradually opened its agricultural market. But it has resisted pressure to eliminate subsidies for farmers, insisting food security goes beyond being a WTO trade concern.
Farmers are concerned about the country's growing rice stock caused by two consecutive years of bumper crops and shrinking demand.
"The government should not bow to foreign pressure," Chung Kwang-Hoon, head of the Farmers' League, said in a speech at an earlier rally. He insisted farmers' debt should be written off.
The government has vowed to increase purchases of rice this year by 15 percent to prop up tumbling prices. It has also proposed donating the surplus food to famine-stricken North Korea.
Stock in state warehouses rose to 978,000 tonnes last year from 723,000 tonnes in 1999. The government has forecast the rice mountain will increase to 1.4 million tonnes this year.
The country produced 5.3 million tonnes of rice last year and the yield could hit 5.4 million tonnes this year.Agence France Presse: