This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The bustling, fast-paced, wired metropolis city of Seoul is what most people know of South Korea. Now the fifteenth largest economy in the world, South Korea’s economy is driven by the exports sector controlled by corporations like Samsung, Hyundai, LG and Daewoo. These chaebols have significant global market share: 37 percent in LCD TVs, 33 percent in hand-held phones and 9 percent in automobiles. The term “chaebol nation” aptly describes South Korea’s economy: the top 30 chaebols account for 82 percent of the country’s exports.
It’s hard to imagine that just two generations ago, farming fueled the nation’s economy. In the 1970s, farmers accounted for half the population; today, they represent only 6.2 percent. South Korea’s rapid transformation from an agrarian economy to a highly industrialized one wasn’t accidental; it was the outcome of the central government’s development and trade liberalization policies that in the early 1980s began to see farming as part of Korea’s past, not its future.
The major blow to Korean agriculture fell in 1994, when South Korea joined the WTO and the Agreement on Agriculture, which effectively forced the government to eliminate quotas and tariffs even while major agriculture exporting blocs like the United States and European Union still gave billions in subsidies to their own farmers. The result of all this liberalization: South Korea is only 20-percent self-sufficient in grain production, compared with the 1970s when it was at 70 percent.
If South Korean chaebols and the politicians that represent them had their way, small farmers—the majority of South Korea’s agricultural sector—would all but disappear under the logic that they are uncompetitive in the global marketplace. They argue that it would be far more efficient for the country to continue to import cheap food from less developed countries—including through the process of acquiring land outside of Korea, like in Africa and South East Asia.
And yet, despite a series of domestic and international policies that have sought to systematically eliminate them, South Korean farmers and peasants are fighting back. They have protested the WTO and bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) for two decades, inspiring peasant farmers throughout the global south to mobilize against the free trade regime. At home, they are trying to build a domestic food sovereignty movement that is ecologically sustainable, socially equitable and economically resilient by producing healthy food, creating dignified rural livelihoods and reviving farming communities.