South Korea’s development model has often left outsiders wondering how this country went from being one of the world’s poorest nations to an economic super power in less than 50 years. The model has been hailed as one of the best examples of rapid industrialization with relatively little social and environmental costs. Clearly these observers never ventured far outside of Seoul. The social, human, and environmental costs are apparent the further you get away from the urban centers.
Even though Korea finally achieved democracy in the late 1980’s successive governments have more or less followed the same economic trajectory. The official image of Korea as a dynamic, global and high tech society is what most visitors and mainstream Koreans see. Environmental, social, and economic policy is centered on making Korea a modern society…and rural Korea is not part of this plan.
The pressure on farmland from increased urbanization and indutrialization is a major issue: farmlandhasdecreasedtoarecordlow. A recent example of the prioritization of land for urban and industrial development is the Saemangeum land reclamation project that, after 40 years, was finally realized. The 160 sq. miles project was proposed in 1971 to increase farm land for rice production. In March 2011 the government announced that only 30% ofthelandwould be reserved for farming while the remaining 70% will be for residential, industrial, and commercial development based on the argument that Korea already produces enough rice. But that argument is in sharp contrast to the government’s own involvement in acquiringlandoverseasforriceproduction. Another major project that is altering Korea’s landscape is an ambitious water project named the Four Rivers Project. The government promotes this massive water restoration project as something that will benefit farmers and urban areas alike and even got the UnitedNationsEnvironmentProgramme (UNEP) toapplaudtheprogramasanexampleofgoodclimateadaptation. UNEP later retracted their support later heavy criticism from Korean environmental groups. Critics emphasize the further decrease of farm land anddestructionofthousandsofculturalandhistoricalheritagesites. Both examples highlight the government’s focus on urban areas and disregards the needs and wants of farmers and rural residents.
Another factor contributing to the farm crisis is the changing diets primarily in urban centers. Western foods 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 amounts of land make it impossible to produce many of these products domestically. Furthermore, production of cheese and meat is much more resource intensive, thus increasing the demand for land, water and feed. For example, when visiting my family in the rural part of Korea, meat is 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
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 with the active support of the South Korean government who often assist with negotiations. In some cases state owned corporations such as the Korea Rural Development Corporation are directly owning and operating 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 then President Marc Ravalomanana. Theincomingoppositionleaderquicklyreversedthelanddeal.
South Korea’s inability to feed itself should however not only be seen as a result of its economic development strategy—i.e. prioritization of the urban population and industrial development over agriculture—but also in the long term ties and dependency to the US, 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. Especially the US Air Force bombed indiscriminately military and civilian targets. In fact, the US 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 and the country received large amounts of food aid from the US long after the war had ended. US Food aid initially helped feeding 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 US and South Korea. The negotiations began as far back as 2007 and have been the subject to widespread protests in South Korea, especially back in 2007 when hundredsofthousandsofKoreanswenttothestreetstoprotesttheimportofUSbeef. Since South Korea joined the World Trade Organization in 2005 Korean farmers have felt the squeeze even further as cheap imports havemaderurallivelihoodsincreasinglydifficult. 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 exceeds 5 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, traditionallythemostprotectedareaofSouthKoreanagriculture.
Fighting the tide
Overseas land acquisitions and Free Trade Agreements are about to put more nails into the coffin of rural communities all over the country in the name of corporate profits, “food security” and the relentless pursuit establishing Korea as a “modern” 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 international spotlight back in 2003 during the WTO ministerial in Cancun. Outside the negotiations, farmer and activist Lee Kyung Hae climbed a fence and killed himself in front of thousands of protesters and police in protest of the WTO’s assault on small farmers around the world. Since then the Korean Peasant’s League and Korean Women’s Peasant Association have become powerful voices in the global struggle against neoliberal trade policies and agro-industrial domination over the world’s food systems.
Increasingly, 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 1,700 producers is working to restore direct relations between farmers and urban consumers. Urban and rural activist disillusioned with Korea’s development path also began in the late 80s and early 90s to establish themselves in rural areas torecover the connection to culture, history, land, and food that they felt was lost during the rapid industrialization and relentless pursuit of wealth.
South Korea is an exemplary case of what is gained and lost in the pursuit of modernization and globalization, but also that there are alternative ways that are respectful to people, nature, history, and culture.
Daniel Gray is a Korean-American Adoptee that returned to Korea in 2005 to rediscover his roots. He is a Korean food expert that has appeared on Bizarre Foods, Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain and more. He is the president of Delectable Travels and owns two restaurants: Brew 3.14 and Brew 3.15 in Seoul.