Floods in Asia ruin rice crop: Japan set to reverse import ban - Storms threaten rest of harvest

A COOL, wet summer in north- east Asia has devastated the rice crop, an event with political and social consequences ranging from raids on rice storehouses in Japan to possible unrest in North Korea. Typhoon Ed is threatening further damage in Japan, while further south and west, rice-growing areas of the Philippines and Vietnam have been hit by tropical storms.

Japan, where governments' refusal to allow imports of rice forces consumers to pay at least nine times more than anywhere else, will have to import at least 1 million tonnes over the next 15 months, following the worst crop since 1945. Typhoon Ed is now threatening to bring more rain just as the harvest is being brought in.

South Korea has estimated that bad weather will cut its rice crop by just over 10 per cent. In Communist North Korea, propaganda organs have claimed a bumper harvest, but have given no reliable figures. According to a research institute in the south, Pyongyang is covering up one of the worst rice crops in recent years.

Kim Un-kun, a fellow of the state-funded Korea Rural Economic Institute, said North Korean rice production was expected to fall by nearly a third this year. Food shortages seemed to be 'a serious problem' in the north. Earlier this year rumours filtered out of food riots and guards being placed on warehouses where rations are kept. One report said visitors had seen a new slogan on billboards, calling on North Koreans to eat one meal fewer per day.

The South Korean institute said it co-operated with a Chinese institute to carry out surveys along North Korea's borders with the two countries. The north's collectivised agriculture, added Mr Kim, suffered from poor working practices, a lack of production incentives and shortages of technology and fertilisers. Andy Aronson, chief rice forecaster for the US Department of Agriculture, said North Korea was likely to attempt to make up its shortfall by bartering mineral resources for low-quality rice from China.

Rice forms a small part of the world trade in agricultural products, but the refusal of Japan and South Korea to permit imports has put their staple food at the top of the Gatt (world trade agreement) agenda. This week the US Agriculture Secretary, Mike Espy, arrives in Tokyo to keep up the pressure on Japan to open its market. He will be followed later this month by Peter Sutherland, the new Gatt chief, who will be seeking a resolution of the dispute by the 15 December Gatt deadline.

The failure of this year's crop has heightened the embarrassment of Tokyo and Seoul. Japan has announced 'emergency imports' of 200,000 tonnes this year, and will probably ensure that some is bought from the US, the world's leading exporter. But Morihiro Hosokawa's coalition government cannot afford to antagonise the country's rice farmers, who have disproportionate political influence. It insists that the self-sufficiency policy will remain, even though imports of up to 1 million tonnes may be necessary next year. South Korea, where 15 per cent of the population earns a living from rice growing, is equally obdurate.

With astronomical rice prices likely to go even higher in Japan, thefts from storehouses have increased. Farmers and office workers have joined professional criminals in stealing supplies, hoping, according to police, to make a profit as prices rise.

World rice stocks are enough to supply deficits in any Asian country, but prolonged floods in the Philippines, which has been hit twice by Typhoon Flo, would weaken the country's economy further. Vietnam, the world's third- largest exporter, has the worst flooding for 90 years in central provinces, but its main rice-growing areas have had a record crop.

(Map omitted)