Written by Lindsay Burnette

Stretched across South Korea’s landscape, hidden between the widespread mountains and thriving urban centers, lies an intricate patchwork of organically formed shapes that make up Korea’s small-scale farmland. Although this more understated element of Korea’s landscape often goes unmentioned, it embodies a strong cultural narrative that speaks towards South Korea’s turbulent history, present notion of progress and globally oriented future.

I came to Seoul to study the urban landscape and South Korea’s modern developments in sustainable landscape design. However, after just one month of bustling Seoul life, I found myself yearning to experience Korea’s countryside — in particular the area where just 50 years ago, over 60% of the population resided — Korea’s rural farmland. I had been warned numerous times that South Korea is known for its rapidly growing metropolises, its ancient historical sites and its pervasive mountains, but never for its farms. Korean friends cautioned me not to expect to find the well-manicured, bucolic landscapes I had once experienced in Japan here in Korea. For many city dwellers in South Korea today, the rural landscape has become a thing of the past — a past they are proud to have left behind. Buried in the rural countryside are memories of Japanese colonial rule, pre-democracy struggle and a time before South Korea’s economic boom when it was one of the poorest countries in the world.

Given these warnings, on my first visit to a farm in Korea, I expected to find a nostalgic, aging community struggling to preserve the history of their ancestors. However, what I found instead was an energetic, activist atmosphere battling against global economic policies through a strong, locally rooted sustainable-agriculture movement. I came to realize that the stories of the harsh setbacks embodied in this gracefully manipulated landscape are not just a thing of the past. Instead they are living on in the form of free trade agreements that allow competition from cheap foreign agricultural markets, economic policies that disregard agriculture as a high priority and large-scale farming technologies that threaten the deep-rooted structure of small scale farmland. Over the years, these major issues have sprouted reactionary movements, leading to a national web of locally grown food, farmer’s rights activists, and sustainably minded development. I quickly discovered that the presentday story of small-scale agriculture in South Korea is one of global involvement, boundless struggle and profound social transformation.

Granddaughters. Mimi Cagaitan. Yeongdeok.

Granddaughters. Mimi Cagaitan. Yeongdeok.

Uncompromising Policies

My first eye-opening experience with Korean farms was at Seongook Eco Experience Village in Sangju. Nestled under the Sobaek Mountains, the village is a tight-knit community of generations of farmers growing food, raising livestock and teaching curious city dwellers how to live sustainably. All farmers in Seongook Village share a common mission: to spread food sovereignty throughout South Korea. Food sovereignty is the right of all citizens to have access to healthy, sustainably produced and culturally appropriate food. It also entitles the food producers to proper acknowledgement, support and respect. In principle, it creates and supports local, non-corporate, and environmentally considerate systems, which connect farmers and consumers.

As it is now, food sovereignty is not pervasive in South Korea, and due to recent political decisions, it is becoming an even steeper uphill battle. In March of 2012, South Korea and the United States entered into effect the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), one of nine bilateral agreements in South Korea. This agreement removes tariffs on 95 percent of goods between South Korea and the U.S. over a five-year period. Almost immediately, Korea phased out tariffs on a large range of agricultural products, making almost two-thirds of agricultural imports from the U.S. to South Korea duty free upon entry. The agreement has devastating effects on Korea’s farm sector, with a predicted $626 million loss in annual production value and a 45 percent displacement rate for Korean farmers.

Even before the KORUS FTA however, for several decades Korean farmers have faced massive setbacks in government support. Beginning in the early 1980s, discouraged by Korea’s small amount of farmable land, the South Korean government implemented a neoliberal free trade agricultural policy. In 1994, South Korea joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) and signed the Agreement on Agriculture. The WTO works to establish international rules of trade between nations, and under the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture quotas and tariffs are lifted on imported agricultural products besides rice. Although this agreement creates less dependence on domestic goods, few subsidies are provided for farmers. As a result, South Korea’s food self-sufficiency dropped from 70 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 2011. In turn, and the average debt of a farmer has risen to $20,000, and the amount of farmers and farmland have dropped steadily. The impacts of these policies are all too visible across Korea’s countryside today.

Most farmers are quick to admit they are an incredibly vulnerable group and are sacrificing almost everything to be a small-scale farmer. One elderly farmer in her eighties spoke of her efforts to send her children away from the farm and to the city to get a stable, paying job. She said the debts from farming were too big of a burden to put on her children. Despite her efforts, her son insisted on quitting his office job and coming back to run the family farm.

Unfortunately, future governmental support for South Korean farmers is not on the horizon. On September 30th, 2014, the Korean government submitted to the WTO an agreement to open the Korean rice market, a decision that many fear will result in the collapse of rice agriculture in South Korea. With this liberalization, the government has pledged to place a 513% tariff to keep the Korean rice market competitive, however many farmers doubt the government’s ability and willingness to follow through with this promise. Kyung San Hwang, the director of policy for the Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA), says she suspects many rice farmers will be forced to just give up, losing their source of livelihood.

Fighting Back

Though the farmers and activists I met spoke of each setback with frustration, disappointment and occasionally defeat, their words were interwoven with powerful messages of countermovements. As Kyung San Hwang listed the horrifying potential impacts of rice liberalization, she spoke of the plan for South Korean farmers to tour the country and speak to citizens about the importance of the issue and impact of the market opening. Jeong Won Yoon, administrator of Our Sisters’ Garden Plot, described the threat of genetically modified organisms on the preservation of native seed in South Korea, yet she focused on the subsequent task of educating children, consumers and society about local and indigenous food and agriculture.

Out of the devastating policy hurdles, national grassroots farming movements have evolved, creating localized systems of support and exchange for farmers and consumers. One pivotal group that was born out of opposition to South Korea’s neoliberal agricultural policies is the Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA), founded in 1989. Today, the KWPA is a strong organization of women that fight for women’s rights, sustainable agriculture, small-scale farms and the preservation of native seeds. In 2012, the KWPA won the Food Sovereignty Prize from the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, signifying the immense impact of their work and gaining international support for their cause.

A System to Grow From

Perhaps the most remarkable outcome of the KWPA is the intricate system they have created that simultaneously supports small-scale farmers, empowers women, educates citizens and gives power and sway to sustainable food producers and consumers. An integral piece of this system is Our Sisters’ Garden Plots, a network of small-scale community cooperatives that put these concepts into action. Kim Jeong Yoel, president of Our Sister’s Garden Plot describes the organization as small-scale farms that are close to home, have a diverse production and are “built with the love and help of mothers.” Our Sisters’ Garden Plot is free from the usual patriarchal structure found in agriculture. Women own the land, sell the food under their own names and make all the business decisions. Although men are welcome to help with the labor, they have no say in the planning and decision making process.

As Kim Jeong Yoel described her work and the system she has worked to recreate, I was struck by her sincerity, passion and dedication to food sovereignty and women’s rights. Kim introduced herself stating, “I am proud to be a woman, and I am very proud to be a female farmer.” She then went on to describe her journey as a student activist who chose to dedicate her life to the workers’ plight by becoming a farmer. Twenty-four years ago when Kim began farming she was disheartened by the patriarchal farming system. Typically, small farms are run by a married couple. The men own the farms and are in charge of the planning and finances, while the women serve as their assistants. Kim and other female farmers sought to change this and eventually succeeded through Our Sisters’ Garden Plot. Kim’s community garden in Sangju now consists of 16 very active women running the garden, and one man who, despite his hard work, still has no vote in the decisions.

In addition to making women legitimate players in the field of farming, Our Sister’s Garden places a strong emphasis on an honest and deep connection between farmers and consumers. Their motto exemplifies their desire for consumers to know the farmer who produced their food, stating: “Producers with a Face, Consumers with a Heart, Working Together to Build ‘Our Sisters’ Garden Plot.’” It is in this notion that the national system defending against neoliberal policies is grounded.

Our Sisters’ Garden Plot is a network of over 2400 farm plots. Over one hundred of these farms are CSAs – community supported agriculture – which means there is a direct exchange between the farmer and the person consuming the food. Most of these garden plots will provide a monthly box of food suited for one family, multiple families or single people in exchange for a monthly fee. This gives consumers an opportunity to learn about seasonal, local and small-scale food production and gives the farmers the support they wouldn’t otherwise receive due to large-scale agribusiness and harsh international policies. In addition, it helps to build a sharing-economy between farmers, through which the farmers gather multiple times each month to carefully plan and assemble each box together as a community.

It’s easy to romanticize South Korea’s agrarian landscape with its rolling hills, small scale farming practices and slow pace of life. After just a few hours in Sangju I was about ready to pack up my apartment in Seoul and move into the cozy yurt at the center of the farming village. The air was fresh and crisp, the pears were juicy and the people were kind and welcoming. However, when the farmers began to speak about their economic and political realities, this picturesque landscape evolved into one of significant struggle.

Korean farmers are continually fighting against uncompromising trade agreements, large-scale farm competition, and growing debt. As I learn about the impact recent international agriculture agreements have had on South Korea, I begin to reimagine South Korea’s agricultural landscape with global and national binds around the countryside, isolating and suffocating the farmland. However, I also envision an independent system stretching across urban and rural Korea, providing citizens “real” food, connecting communities, empowering women and farmers and breaking down neoliberal binds. This is South Korea’s own specialized system, and at the heart lies a pure and genuine desire to nourish and educate society. As Kim Jeong Yoel eloquently put it, “our strength is knowing the livelihoods of our people. Our hope is the process of struggle itself, and awakening people along the way. This struggle is a beautiful thing.”

Lindsay Burnette is a 2014-2015 Junior Researcher affiliated with Seoul National University. Her research covers cultural landscape studies and urban agriculture throughout Seoul.