Korea fears backlash from kimchi dispute

SEOUL: Next to piles of freshly made fermented lettuce and cabbage, a Korean sign proclaims the front line of North Asia's latest trade war.

"We make kimchi ourselves, from start to finish, without using any sauce from non-Korean countries," says the sign in Lotte Department Store's branch in central Seoul. For Lotte customers, that suddenly has become a big deal.

Until last month, South Korea had been content to buy virtually all of its kimchi imports from its largest trading partner, China. Then the discovery for the first time of parasite eggs in a batch of Chinese imports plunged the countries into the biggest trade dispute in three years.

For South Koreans, this means higher prices of radish, cabbages and lettuce at the height of the annual kimchi-making season. For the governments in Beijing and Seoul, a relationship that includes $100 billion of trade is at risk.

"Neither government would want an all-out war on this matter because the consequences are too detrimental," said Kwak Noh Sung, a professor of international trade at Dongguk University.

South Koreans consume about 1.5 million tons of kimchi each year, or 31 kilos for every man, woman and child.

Kimchi imports from China soared 79 percent in the first nine months of this year to 85,266 tons, according to the Korea Food and Drug Administration. That is virtually all of the 85,296 tons of marinated cabbage, radish and lettuce that South Korea shipped in during January to September.

Those imports have now stopped. China halted exports of kimchi after the health authorities in South Korea said on Oct. 21 that they had found the parasite eggs in batches of the food from China. In response, the Beijing authorities on Tuesday banned seven brands of Korean kimchi imports after they were found contaminated with parasites, Xinhua reported.

The South Korean government is at pains to ensure that the dispute does not escalate into a wider boycott.

"A trade war triggered by the kimchi issue benefits neither country," the South Korean minister of foreign affairs and trade, Ban Ki Moon, said Wednesday. "As South Korea-Chinese trade relations expand, such problems may arise. The best solution is through sufficient dialogue."

The Chinese ambassador, Ning Fukui, voiced his "concerns" over the matter on Oct. 25 while visiting Minister of Finance and Economy Han Duck Soo for the first time since taking up his Seoul posting the previous month.

Han knows the dangers of underestimating Koreans' attachment to their national dish.

He lost his job in July 2002 as adviser to then President Kim Dae Jung after negotiating the opening up of South Korea to Chinese imports of garlic, an essential ingredient in kimchi. The so-called garlic war led South Korea to abide by the accord after China threatened to stop imports of cellphones and polyethylene from its neighbor.

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