South Korea has no choice but to scrap caps on rice imports from the start of 2015, instead managing shipments into the country using a system of tariffs, a senior government official said.

Such a shift has long been expected as a 20-year-old agreement over rice import quotas with the World Trade Organization expires at the end of 2014, with the nation under pressure to take greater steps to open its markets for the staple grain.

“Implementing tariffs on rice starting in 2015 is an issue that cannot be delayed any further, and realistically there are no other alternatives,” said Yeo In-hong, vice agriculture minister.

While the statement, made at the latest public hearing on the issue, was Yeo’s personal opinion, it marks another indication that a move to tariffs is close.

The step would be unlikely to spark a short-term surge in rice imports as hefty tariffs would deter buyers from making overseas purchases.

But it would represent a key psychological shift in a politically sensitive sector, with farmers in the country fretting it could pave the way towards lower duty in the future.

Government officials and industry experts have said import duty would likely be around 300-500 percent, bringing prices for imported rice in line with local grain.

Under the current WTO agreement, South Korea must buy 408,700 tons of foreign rice this year, or 9 percent of its demand. The amount that must be purchased abroad has gradually increased from 51,000 tons in 1995.

Local media have said that an official policy announcement on rice imports could come as early as next week. (Reuters)