Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Korea # 26 How the U. S. Brought Land Reform to Japan and Korea


Korea # 26 The U.S. brings land reform to Asia

I am posting again on Korea two months after leaving there because my great question about Korea and Japan--how did land reform come to Japan, Taiwan, and Korea after World War II--has been answered. 

The answer comes from a new book, “How Asia Works” by Joe Studwell.  How is it that Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China in northern Asia succeeded brilliantly after the war while Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines in southern Asia , have largely failed to develop, Studewell ask?  The answer is two-fold:  first, the successful countries developed intensive, small-plot agriculture after World War II to provide a livelihood for a vast numbers of peasants and thereby built a consumer society; second, each country then intensely and at times ruthlessly built manufacturing industries for the world market.  The unsuccessful countries did neither.

The north of Asia succeeded and the south failed not because of climate or the natural advantage of geography.  The opposite is true:  Korea and Japan’s climate is less hospitable to agriculture than Malaysia or the Philippines.  Nor can success be traced to culture, which is roughly similar in north and south Asia.  Success was the result of correct, fortuitious and timely political, economic and institutional decisions, starting with agriculture. 

In previous posts we learned that in Japan the land of large landowners was somehow transferred into the hands of their former tenants after the war (which I heard from an innkeeper whose father was one of those favored tenants).  We surmised this was the doing of the Douglas MacArthur post-war administration of Japan, which seemed unlikely.  Yet it turns out to be true, according to “How Asia Works.”  The occupying U. S. government demanded land reform.  The Japanese government then bought land from larger landowners using long-term bonds and sold it to more than one million Japanese peasants on generous terms. 

The same thing happened in Korea; however it took the Korean War and pressure on the ultra-conservative head of the South Korean government to finally accomplish in 1953 what the U. S. had tried to impose at the end of its governing Korea in l948.  Hundreds of thousands of bitterly poor South Koreans were given land.  Then their villages were given modest aid (cement and re-bar) and 15 years later Korea had a consumer-based economy.

Only because small farms finally had surplus income and thus became consumers were they able to provide surplus labor which enabled these four countries to turn next to manufacturing for export.  Hyundai and Samsung would not have been possible today without land reform breaking the economic ground and generating surplus wealth to invest in manufacturing.

The idea of imposing land reform on Japan and its two former colonies, Korea and Taiwan, can be traced to a 1945 memorandum in the U.S. State Department anticipating Japan’s surrender. Its authors, George Atcheson Jr (who was then appointed to the MacArthur headquarters) and Robert A. Fearey (a pro-land reformer working for the Office of Far Eastern Affairs), might have been trying to blunt or preempt land reform pushed by the Communists in China and Korea.  The Communist’s Nationalist opponents in China had themselves approved of land reform even if they did not implement it widely.  This carried over to Taiwan to which the Nationalists retreated after being defeated on the mainland. 

 
Seventy-five years ago U.S. agriculture would have been more sympathetic to land reform to benefit small farmers than it is today.  The British and the Russians alsso weighed in in favor of land reform in Japan as the war came to an end.

The one person most responsible for waging this campaign within the United States government was a Russian immigrant named Wolf Ladejinsky who worked for the State Department and consulted in land reform in Asia until the U. S. lost interest in the subject in l970, according to Studwell. 

The portion of the book devoted to small-plot agriculture is called “The Triumph of Gardening” to emphasize that farming was really gardening on a large scale.  The most important input is human, not chemical. In taking us through Japan, Korea and Taiwan, Studwell emphasizes that small-plot farming is more efficient than large-plot industrial agriculture, including growing sugar cane and rice. 

Another takeaway is that it was largely the sons of peasants who made not only agriculture successful but sophisticated export-driven manufacturing as well.  Peasant sons such as the military dictator, Chung Park Hee, who revolutionized South Korea between l970 until his assassination in l979, distrusted large landowners and established business leaders.  Upon assuming power, Chung Park Hee jailed all the big businessmen he could find and did not let them out until they promised to devote their businesses to the welfare of Korea.  He told them what they would be doing for the country and they had little choice but to do it.

The successful countries also defied advice of Washington economists, the World Bank and the International Development Fund, the “Washington Consensus,” which the southern countries largely accepted.  Successful countries’ leaders did not believe in the free flow of capital or the internationalization and deregulation of banking.  They believed a poor country had no choice but to grab control of how its limited funds and hard currency were used.  They would eventually accede to the accepted international behavior but only after they had succeeded. 

Agriculture changed in recent decades in the four successful countries but they continue to feed far more people per-acre than the U. S. while taking better care of the land. 

In the New York Times November 13, Mark Bittman, the paper’s lead food columnist, writes that while the proportion of the world’s population that is chronically hungry has decreased in the last 50 years, the absolute number has remained steady at one billion.  Moreover,  in the future, the poor will have less to eat because more of the world’s land, water and fertilizer will be devoted to raising food for animals, leaving less for the most vulnerable.

One way to prevent this is to provide to small-scale or peasant agriculture the research, energy and subsidies which now goes to industrial-scale agriculture.   Peasant agriculture is arguably more efficient than industrial agriculture, Bittman writes.  Studwell would agree. 

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