South Korea’s global food ambitions: Rural farming and land grabs

South Korea’s inability to feed itself should not only be seen as a result of its economic development strategy, but also in the long term ties and dependency to the US, its largest trading partner.

Conducive Magazine | 19 March 2011

This is the first of a series of articles that investigate the roles of agriculture, food security, and social movements in South Korea’s rapid transformation in to an Asian economic and cultural super power. The articles will take a closer look at how this nation transformed itself from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest in only 50 years, seen from the perspective of those who benefited the least: The Farmer’s and Rural Communities.

By Anders Riel Muller

Take a walk through Seoul, South Korea’s capital of more than 10 million (24.5 million in the Seoul Metropolitan Area) and one cannot help but notice the uncountable number of restaurants. In Seoul, eating out is as common as eating at home (if not more) because the food is cheap, plentiful, and most people work late in this super competitive society. Seoul is the heart and center of South Korea. It is the seat of the government and major industrial conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo, and LG. It is hip, modern, and is quickly becoming one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Korean food has also become a popular ethnic cuisine, especially in the U.S. In fact so much that the South Korean government has begun to actively promote Korean food abroad as part of their global marketing campaign that aims at establishing Korea’s position as an economic and cultural super power in East Asia.

Korean cuisine is a source of national pride because it is distinct from the neighboring countries of China and Japan. For evidence, you only have to flip through the hundreds of cable channels here in Korea. Almost every other show is about Korea’s many regional cuisines. In the fall when I was visiting Montreal, Canada and walked down my old street, I saw a new Korean restaurant had opened only a few blocks from where I used to live. The name of the restaurant was 5000 Years, hinting not only at Korea’s ancient food traditions, but also to its resistance to domination by its two neighboring giants; China and Japan. The Korean cuisine is a symbol of the country’s long history, its cultural heritage, the land, and perpetual struggle to remain independent from the imperial powers that surrounded the country for centuries.

But there is a little catch: Korea hardly grows any food. Except for rice where Korea is self-sufficient due to protective measures, South Korea imports 90% of its food from abroad.  South Korea has undergone one of the most rapid industrial transformations in human history. In 1950, 70-80 percent of the population was working in the agricultural sector. Today less than 8% of the population is employed in the agricultural sector and South Korea has become one of the most urbanized and modern industrialized nations in the world. In the past few years, South Korea has received increased attention as they are at the forefront of what is now being described as a global land grab by food insecure nations that also includes China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai, among others. How did this country turn from being one of the poorest post colonial states in the world to one of the largest land grabbers in recent years? And what does it mean to the country’s domestic agricultural sector?

South Korean Agriculture: In Perpetual Crisis

South Korea is an interesting study in colonization, rapid economic development and the sharp contrasts that come from swift societal transformation from a rural economy to an industrial one. Peasant livelihoods and land reform have been at the center of Korea’s modern history since the final years of the Josun dynasty and throughout the Japanese occupation and post-war division in two Koreas. A defining moment in modern Korean history was the 1894 Donghak Rebellion in which peasant rose up against corrupt government officials and heavy taxation, which was part of the Kingdom’s attempt at transforming into a modern nation state in the face of increased concerns about the imperial ambitions of Japan. The rebellion was violently suppressed by Japanese forces who came to the aid of the Korean government and the ruling landowning elites. With the full occupation of Korea by Japan, the plight of peasants became even worse. Japan’s only interest was to convert Korea in to a supplier of food and other products to fuel their imperial ambitions. In doing so, the Japanese administrators allied themselves with the ruling landlord elite. By the 1920s, the majority of peasants in Korea had been reduced to tenant farmers delivering up to 50% of their harvests in taxes.

The peasantry in Korea did not sit quietly and watch the Japanese colonizers buying up the farm land and reinforcing the highly stratified feudal social structures that still existed in Korea. Peasants across Korea rose up against the Japanese regime and their collaborators numerous times, and the peasantry was the strongest political movement in Korea at the end of World War II. In the Soviet occupied north, drastic land reforms took place in the late 1940’s. All farms of more than three hectares were confiscated and turned over to village peasant councils that then redistributed the land to the peasants. These land reforms were a threat to the nationalist conservative regime in South Korea led by Syngman Rhee. Syngman Rhee was initially against land reform as his constituency in large parts belonged to the land holding class, many of whom had fled North Korea as their land was confiscated. However, the fear of a massive peasant uprising (and hence a Communist reunification) in the South led the U.S. to pressure the South Korean government to implement their own land reforms. The land reforms in South Korea were far less comprehensive than in the North, but they did pacify peasant resistance.

But South Korea has historically shown little interest in its agricultural sector throughout the post Korean War period. The rural population and agriculture was primarily regarded as a source of cheap food and cheap labor for the country’s dizzying industrial development. While land reforms managed to pacify the peasant movement, investments in agriculture were by far and large insufficient to provide adequate livelihoods. There were hardly any famines, but most farmers struggled to carve out more than a meager living and for most of the young generations after the 1960s, moving to the city was the only option. Young women in particular left the countryside in order to work under horrible conditions in sweat shops, in order to be able to send remittances back to their relatives.

Rural South Korea supplied cheap food and labor crucial to the success of the industrial revolution championed by dictators such as Park Chung Hee, while neglecting the countryside. The contrast is startling today. On one hand South Korea’s urban centers are symbols of the official “Sparkling Korea”, but as one ventures in to the countryside and takes a closer look, one will see the sad fate of rural communities. The average farmer in South Korea is more than 50 years old, often tilling a few hectares with outdated machinery. Poverty is to be found everywhere, and because farm life has become so economically undesirable, rural Korea has become a huge market for arranged marriages with women from countries in South-East Asia. In fact, one of three marriages in rural areas is now between Korean men and foreign women. But not all is gloomy. Since the 1997 financial crisis, an increasing number of people have joined the Back to the Land movement, establishing new farming cooperatives focused on organic agriculture and food sovereignty.  We will return to these movements later in this article.

Today the farm sector is seen by most Koreans as backward and undesirable. Little money is to be made and land is expensive. The pressure on farm land is also an issue. Urban and industrial development encroaches on farm land. While South Korea’s territory has increased due to land reclamation projects, farm land has decreased to a record low. The Four Rivers Project is poised to decrease farm land even further. Touted as a massive water restoration project by the government, critics emphasize the further decrease of farm land and destruction of thousands of cultural and historical heritage sites.

Another factor contributing to the farm crisis is changing urban diets. Western cuisines are becoming increasingly accessible to a larger part of the population. While there remains pride in Korean food, western cuisines are symbols of affluence and cosmopolitan lifestyles. Dairy products, bread, and meat are in high demand. In Seoul for example, bakeries are on every street corner. The structure of Korean agricultural production and the limited amount of land makes it impossible to produce many of these products domestically. Furthermore, production of cheese and meat is much more resource intensive, increasing the demand for land, water and feed. For example, when visiting my family in rural Korea, meat was still considered a luxury that is used sparingly. But whenever I am in Seoul, it is hard to imagine a day going by without eating meat, primarily in the form of some sort of BBQ.

Solution to the food crisis: Opening up Markets and Overseas Expansion

Industrial development and population pressure has pushed Korea’s food needs far beyond the capacity of its own land.  In response, South Korea has since 2008 food price crisis become one of the most aggressive countries in overseas farm land acquisitions along with countries such as China, Japan, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. In a recent editorial, the Joongang Daily, one of the nation’s leading newspapers, encouraged South Korea’s attempt at securing overseas farm land to protect the country against speculation on the global agricultural commodity market and securing its food supply. It is interesting to think of this endorsement considering Korea’s own history of resistance to Japanese land grabs during that country’s occupation of Korea during the first half of the 20th century, which caused massive displacement and destitution among Korea’s peasantry.

Many of these land acquisitions take place in South East Asia and Africa. The details of the land purchases are difficult to get access to, and many such deals have taken place in countries with questionable human rights records such as Sudan. Most of South Korea’s largest food corporations are involved in these negotiations, often with the active support of the South Korean government. In some cases, state-owned corporations such as the Korea Rural Development Corporation directly own and operate these farms. The most prominent land deal was announced in 2008, when Daewoo of South Korea proposed to lease 1.3 million hectares of farm land in Madagascar (almost half of the country’s arable land) for 99 years. The proposal led to widespread unrest in Madagascar and was a significant contributor to the fall of  President Marc Ravalomanana. The incoming opposition leader quickly reversed the land deal.

South Korea’s inability to feed itself should not only be seen as a result of its economic development strategy, prioritization of the urban population and industrial development over agriculture, but also in the long term ties and dependency to the U.S., its largest trading partner. South Korea’s dependence on US food imports goes back to the end of the Korean War. At the end of the Korean War, the Korean peninsula had been devastated by massive warfare by both the Allied and Communist troops. The US Air Force bombed both military and civilian targets indiscriminately. In fact, the U.S. used more Napalm in two days during the Korean War as they did during the entire war in Vietnam. The war left South Korea devastated, dependent on food aid from the U.S. even following the end of the war. U.S. Food aid initially helped feed the millions of poor and hungry victims of war, but as the years went on, US food aid became a significant factor in keeping grain prices low and thus depressing the agricultural sector in South Korea.

As this article is being written, the finishing touches are put on a Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and South Korea. The negotiations began as far back as 2007 and have been the subject of widespread protests in South Korea, significantly the 2007  protests where hundreds of thousands of Koreans went to the streets to protest the import of US beef. Since South Korea joined the World Trade Organization in 2005, Korean farmers have felt the squeeze even more as cheap imports have made rural livelihoods increasingly difficult. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that ratification of the Free Trade Agreement will increase food exports to South Korea significantly. US food exports to South Korea already exceed five billion USD, making South Korea the 5th largest export market for US farm products. Under the FTA, nearly all agricultural trade tariffs will be eliminated including those for rice, traditionally the most protected area of South Korean agriculture.

Fighting the tide

South Korean farmers are not new to being considered a necessary evil to changing governments. The difference now is that while Korea has been somewhat dependent on its farmers to grow food, overseas land acquisitions and Free Trade Agreements endorsed by the government and major food corporations will soon put more nails in to the coffin of rural communities all over the country in the name of corporate profits, food security and the relentless pursuit of establishing Korea as a “modern” and global power.

But farmers are fighting back and are making their voices heard not only nationally, but also increasingly on the international scene. The plight of the South Korean farmer first came into the spotlight of the international community during the 2003  World Trade Organization negotiations in Cancun, when farmer and activist Lee Kyung Hae climbed the fence and killed himself in front of thousands of protesters and police to protest what the WTO did to small farmers around the world.  Since then, the Korean Peasant’s League and Korean Women’s Peasant Association have become vocal voices in the global struggle against international trade policy and agro-industrial domination over the World’s food systems.

Increasingly, some consumers are also becoming aware of the detrimental effects that Korea’s development path has on farmers and rural communities. Hansalim, a growing ecologically-oriented cooperative with more than 230,000 consumer members and 1700 producers, is working to restore direct relations between farmers and their urban consumers.  Urban and rural activists disillusioned with Korea’s development path also began in the late 80s and early 90s to establish themselves in rural areas to recover the connection to culture, history, land, and food that they felt was lost during the rapid industrialization and relentless pursuit of wealth.

In the following months, I will try to trace the different movements in Korea, who through practice and activism seek to offer an alternative to the hyper-modern development path pursued by many Koreans and the government.  South Korea is an exemplary case of what is gained and lost in the pursuit of modernization and globalization, and in the alternative ways that are respectful to people, nature, history, and culture.

Anders Riel Muller is a Research Fellow, Institute for Food and Development Policy, USA, www.foodfirst.org and Advisor, Nordic Center for Renewable Energy, Denmark, www.folkecenter.dk

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