Officials have revealed that the Korean government is cautiously mulling a proposal to lift import restrictions on Chinese garlic following a dramatic increase in trading tension between the two countries. Domestic garlic farmers are adamant that the quotas should remain in place, however.

The safeguards were implemented last June in line with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules that allow countries to protect domestic producers from damaging foreign imports. While domestic garlic is believed to be of a higher quality, it costs more than the imported supplies, reaching 1,400 won per kg compared to the Chinese garlic price of between 1,200 won and 1,300 won per kg.

In November 1999, the Korean government increased the tariff rate on Chinese garlic nearly ten-fold, from 30% to 285%, but the government has not recorded any change in the quantity of garlic imports from China. In 1999, the imports totalled 22,000 tons. Under the safeguard measures of the following June meanwhile, imports were fixed at 20,100 tons for 2000, 21,000 tons for this year and 22,000 tons for 2002.

The measures have angered the Chinese however, prompting retaliatory moves such as a ban on imports of Korean mobile phone items and polyethylene. Arguing that Korea actually imported far less garlic than it agreed to, further bans of Korean products were threatened until government officials and prominent exporters agreed to jointly purchase the remaining quota.

Several government ministries, including the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, have spoken out against lifting the quotas on Chinese garlic, and thousands of Korean farmers have similarly vowed to resist the move.

The Korean trade committee began its review of the customs duties and quotas on Chinese garlic during the middle of last month. It has yet to make an official decision on whether to extend or remove them in early June.