Friday, August 9, 2013

Korea # 22: "Hopeful Agriculture, Happy People:" Rural Korea and the Saemaul Movement

The great wonder of Korea for me was not its vibrant urban life, superb subways or even its exceptional educational achievement, wonderous as they were.  It was the 19 percent of Korea that is devoted to agriculture and the 125,000 acres enclosed in greenhouses. 

In this photo we see cropland, forest, the bay and city high rises outside of Busan, Korea.  Many of the white sections in the lower half of the picture will be greenhouses. 

The countryside looks great in July but just as we imagine it in bare winter, can we look behind the green curtain and figure out why rural Korea is really like and how it got that way?

The story begins on April 22, l970, when Korea kicked off its new village movement or Saemaul Undong.  Korea was desperately poor and largely illiterate.  Lacking big money, the government of strongman Park Chung-hee struck on the idea of handing out cement and let villages do what they wished with it.  To be precise, it handed out 335 sacks to 33,267 villages.  Later it dispensed 500 sacks of cement and one ton of steel rods, re-bar. 

The result was thousands of miles of paths turned into roads, new bridges, wells, and expanded irrigation systems.  Thatched roofs were replaced with orange tile still visible today.  Film from the day shows hundreds of people at work, perhaps the only work that was available at the time.

The genius of what has become known as the Saemaul Movement was not in the concrete but in the community spirit and development model behind it.  The words “Diligence, Self-Help and Cooperation” seem to have taken hold.  Villages came together to select projects, form a village council, steer projects to completion and celebrate the results.  With some basic needs met, villages later added public baths, meeting places and warehouses.  Villagers stressed cleanliness, public manners, care for the homeless and other social goods, we read. 

Accompanying this, new varieties and methods of growing rice and barley were introduced.  Some new crops such as tobacco were added.  Fishing villages started growing fish instead of just fishing.  Cooperatives were formed.  The role of women was advanced. Eventually, this is where the greenhouses started.

According to the government’s version of events, the spirit generated in rural areas spilled over into Korea’s few cities.  Rural areas identified where larger communities should be built.  Cooperation and self help went urban.

In the l980’s after things slowed down, the government relaxed its central control which, it says, caused a new level of development and the correction of environmental mistakes in early stages.  By the l990’s the government was subsidizing the expansion of greenhouses, with a 50 percent grant and a 30 percent soft loan in return for a 20 percent investment by the farmer.  To this day, nearly all of the greenhouses are plastic rather than glass, which is what the world’s great greenhouse country, the Netherlands, use to grow vegetables and flowers, exporting 75 percent of what it grows. 

Korea’s export market was Japan, which could be reached by sea; however also Japan built its own greenhouses.  Japan is Korea’s first export market, followed by China and the United States today.

In time, Korea’s rural success drew attention from other countries and Korea began to export the Saemaul Movement.  When giving back to countries that fought the Korean War, it is often rural development on the new villages model that Korea helps install in places like Ethiopia, Colombia and the Philippines.   Korea continually hosts or participates in conferences on rural development and is active in Latin America and Africa.  A total of 71 countries have learned from Korea, according to the web site of the Korean Saemaul Undong Center (whose office, ironically, is in downtown Seoul).  

My anthropology professor, Jeong Duk Yi, tells how the lively village of 300 where he grew up has shrunk to just 100 today.  With more than half of all Koreans living in Seoul, poor rural Korea has become rich urban Korea.  So behind the green curtain there are far fewer people tending to l9 percent of the land.  They must be suffering the same consequences of other rural-to-urban economies around the world.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs recently released its plan for the future titled, “Hopeful Agriculture, Lively Rural Areas and Happy People.”  (Can you imagine the U. S. Department of Agriculture issuing a report with that upbeat title?  Didn’t the “promote the general welfare” as a purpose of government vanish as soon as the Preamble to the Constitution was written?)

You can read between the lines about what may be happening in rural Korea.  The plan proposes disaster insurance for farm crops, a social safety network so elderly farmers can retire (and younger ones encouraged to take their place) and the settling “multi-cultural families” in rural areas, which I take to mean people from other countries such as China.  New settlers are needed.

The plan also calls for technology to control greenhouses remotely; improving food processing at the village level; greater traceability of farm products to insure food safety; turning animal waste into energy; expanding sustainable livestock; promoting on-farm tourism; and expanding child care and joint meal programs in rural areas.


Unlike the United States, I was told that Korea does not import fruit, vegetables and other foods from the south during the winter.  It lives on what can be processed and stored, as it has done in kimchee pots for eons (above).  It must make for a quite different experience to eat in Korea in January compared to the rich and colorful fare of July. 

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