South Korea, Part I: Food is key to national identity…but farmers are left out
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 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 highly competitive society. Seoul is the heart 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 US. In fact, the South Korean government has begun to actively promote Korean food abroad as part of its global marketing campaign to establish 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. 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" referring not only to 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 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 the country is at the forefront of what is now being described as a "global land grab" by food insecure nations such as 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 for the country's domestic agricultural sector. South Korea is an interesting study in colonization, rapid economic development and the sharp contrasts that come from rapid transformation from a rural economy to an industrial one.
Peasant livelihoods and land reform have been at the center of Korea's modern history. A defining moment was the 1894 Donghak Rebellion in which peasant rose up against corrupt government officials and heavy taxation. 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 into 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 as the Japanese colonizers bought up farm land and reinforced 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. Indeed, the peasantry was the strongest political movement in Korea at the end of World War II. In the Soviet-occupied North, drastic land reforms were carried out in the late 1940's. All farms of more than 3 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. However, the fear of a massive peasant uprising (and hence a Communist reunification) in the South led the US to pressure the South Korean government to implement their own land reforms. The land reforms in South Korea were far from being as comprehensive as in the North, but they did pacify peasant unrest.
Despite this important reform, South Korea has shown little interest in its agricultural sector following the Korean War. The rural population 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 insufficient to provide adequate livelihoods. There were few famines, but most farmers struggled to carve out a meager living and for most of the young generations after the 1960s, moving to the city was the only option. Young women left the countryside to work under horrible conditions in sweat shops, in order 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. Meanwhile, the countryside was neglected. Today the farm sector is seen by most Koreans as backward and undesirable. The contrast is startling: On the one hand South Korea's urban centers are symbols of the official "Sparkling Korea", and on the other hand, as one ventures into the countryside, one will see the difficult life of rural communities. The average farmer in South Korea is over 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, many rural Korean leave the countryside to pursue arranged marriages with women from countries in South-East Asia. One of three marriages in rural areas is now between Korean men and foreign women.
Both farmers and consumers are trying to establish alternatives that challenge the mainstream development path in Korea. They are looking for a different kind of life: one that is socially just, environmentally sustainable and that pays respect to the history and traditions of rural life. 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 explore some of these initives in subsequent articles. The next article in this series will look at South Korea's response to the food crisis.
Anders Riel Muller is a Research Fellow at Food First and the South Korea Tour Coordinator for Food Sovereignty Tours. He is developing a South Korea tour for 2012.