South Korea will no longer seek special treatment reserved for developing countries by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in future negotiations given its enhanced global economic status, its finance minister said on Friday.
In late July, United States President Donald Trump named South Korea as one of several countries which he claimed unfairly receive preferential treatment based on the WTO status despite being among the richest countries in the world.
South Korea’s developing country status was self-designated.
“The government decided not to seek special treatment as a developing country from future negotiations at WTO,” Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said in a media briefing.
Hong said this decision is “not to forego the developing country status, but is to not seek any special treatment from the negotiations going forward”.
South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, has maintained its developing country status as a member of the WTO since the body’s creation in 1995, mainly to guard its agriculture industry. It imposes a tariff of more than 500 percent on rice imports.
“It’s difficult to be recognised any longer as a developing nation in international society considering our economic status,” Hong said at a nationally televised address. “The government will do everything it can to provide maximum protection in sensitive agricultural areas such as rice in future WTO negotiations.”
The Finance Ministry said in a separate statement that South Korea is not giving up privileges it has already secured as a developing nation and that the decision only affects future WTO talks. South Korea will also continue to honour WTO-endorsed agreements previously signed among developing nations, it said.
The US has pressured the WTO to change how it designates developing countries, especially China, with which it is engaged in a trade war.
“This is a win for Trump pressuring China,” said Cheong In-kyo, a professor of international trade at South Korea’s Inha University. “China now has one fewer reason to hold on to its developing-nation status.”
The WTO allows countries that claim the status to enjoy longer transition periods for implementing trade deals and protection against emergency import restrictions by developed nations.
Warning of unilateral action in July, Trump named China, Brunei, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Macau, Qatar, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Turkey and South Korea as those unworthy of the status. Singapore has since said it would not seek privileges granted by the status in negotiations.