SEOUL — FOUR years ago, South Korean farmers rallied by the thousands to block an opening of the country's rice market to foreign competition. They saw the imports as a blow to centuries-old rural life and national self-sufficiency in the chief staple.
In fact, rice has been so basic here that the Korean expression for ''Good morning'' is ''Have you eaten rice?''
But Korean farmers may be faced with a looming import after all. With so many Koreans having left farms for jobs in cities and industries, the government plans to bring in foreign labor - from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and other Asian countries - to keep the nation's remaining farms humming.
Many South Koreans are only one generation removed from the farm. Though only about 11 to 12 percent are farmers today, rural areas have emotional and political clout. Koreans pay several times the world price for grains because of small-scale, labor-intensive farms, yet many demand these be preserved, even if market economics demands otherwise.
Also, rural districts are highly represented in parliament - some have less than a quarter the population of urban ones. This makes for an uneven political conflict for farmers.
At the same time, as a newly rich, heavily industrialized nation, Korea is under pressure from the West to bring down its trade barriers if it expects other nations to let in Korean exports.
But with 1 percent to 2 percent of arable land going out of production every year because not many young people want to stay and work the land, officials in Seoul are debating whether foreigners should be used to make up for the labor shortage.
Since the early '90s, foreign workers have been brought in to work what Koreans call ''dirty, dangerous, and difficult'' jobs in nonfarm businesses. If the government decides to admit them for agricultural work, they will be limited to only livestock and fisheries, not rice or other areas.
In fact, much of the work for foreigners will be factory-like, such as pig farms with multistory sties, according to Choi Yong-chon, an agriculture professor at Seoul National University.
If foreigners were actually used in the countryside, Korean farmers might suffer massive complications in managing the labor, predicts Koh Il-Dong of the Korea Development Institute. Farm duties are less specific and structured than those in factories, and communicating work expectations through linguistic and cultural barriers would cause problems. Moreover, much of the work is seasonal, leaving foreign workers idle for long periods.
Given the increasing need for labor in rice fields, foreigners may eventually be planting, weeding, and harvesting the nation's staple, says Park Young-In, Korea director of the United States Wheat and Animal Feed Council.
The biggest problem of bringing in foreigners at all may be that they too many not like the dirty, dangerous, and difficult work either, and end up fleeing their assigned sites for better jobs, taking those opportunities away from Koreans. So far, the ''escape rate'' has been high: Out of 110,000 foreign workers in nonfarm jobs, over 60 percent are here illegally. The justice ministry is wary to let any more foreign workers in. But the agriculture ministry wants them.
Though the amount of idle land in South Korea is increasing, the agriculture ministry also plans to grow rice in Central America and Manchuria, by buying land and then receiving crops from resettled Korean farmers in lieu of payment, reported The Korea Times. But as a nationalist appeal to guarantee food supplies, ''Logically, it sounds great,'' says Park, but it does not work out that way.
According to Koh, the government still owns empty land in Argentina from a similar plan in the early 1970s. People won't settle for the same hard work forever - they move to the city, Park says. A century ago the Japanese did the same thing. One of their descendants became Peru's president.
To keep its membership with the new World Trade Organization, Korea has promised to open slowly its food market to imports each year for the next decade before fully opening to competition. But it is still seeking an exemption.
In the long run, importing workers to revive the rural economy will be too expensive, say experts. Given the price of South Korean staples, it will cost less to import food. When the markets open, Koh says, ''that will be the final judge'' on the countryside's fate.