SEOUL, South Korea's agriculture minister nominee on Thursday said he will seek ways to foster a value-added agriculture industry and smart farming to attract younger people to rural areas.

Lee Gae-ho made the pledge during a parliamentary confirmation hearing after he was tapped as the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, which has been vacant for over four months.

"It is hard to find young people in rural areas, as farmers under age 40 account for less than 1 percent of the total. It is time to seriously think about the future of farming," the two-term ruling Democratic Party lawmaker told lawmakers. "I will provide support for the agriculture and food industry's sustainable growth."

To attain the goal, the bureaucrat-turned-politician said he will encourage young farmers to start "smart farms," which apply advanced technologies to agriculture for efficient crop management, to deal with the fast rise of the aging population in rural areas.

"I will also foster the food industry to boost consumption of local crops and explore ways to revitalize rural communities and create jobs," said Lee, who served as a member of the agriculture, livestock and fishery parliamentary committee in 2016 and 2017.

The aging farming population is a serious problem, as only 11,000, or 1.1 percent of farmers, were under the age of 40, and it is expected to shrink to 0.4 percent in 2025 if the current trend continues, according to the ministry.

South Korea has grown from a predominantly agricultural nation into an industrialized country in a relatively short period of time, with a heavy focus on manufacturing and trade. The agriculture sector accounted for just 2.2 percent of the nation's gross domestic product in 2016, data by the World Bank showed.

In regard to controversy over Lee's previous remark that dogs for meat and pets are different, the appointee said, "I personally don't eat dogs. I have great interest in animal welfare and think livestock breeders should properly take care of animals."

Lee also said he will take measures to stabilize rice prices when he takes office to secure stable levels of income for farmers.

"I don't agree that current rice prices are expensive," Lee said, noting that the prices should be over 194,000 won (US$173.30) per 80 kilograms, the government's current target price. "I will also seek ways to revise the rice subsidy system to better improve the welfare of farmers."

In South Korea, the government annually purchases homegrown rice to stabilize the domestic market grappling with oversupply and provides subsidies for rice farmers.

The chronic oversupply of rice comes as a growing number of South Koreans have been reducing their rice intake and diversifying their diets with alternatives like wheat, barley, beans and corn.

During the hearing, opposition lawmakers questioned Lee's ethical qualifications to be a Cabinet minister, raising allegations that his wife collected rent from an illegally built building in the southern city of Gwangju for decades, and that Lee omitted the building in his asset report when he was vice mayor of Gwangju.

Lee claimed that he listed the land on which the building is built in his asset report but failed to include the building because he was not aware of its existence. He promised to tear down the illegal structure and take steps to protect tenants.

Source: Yonhap News Agency