Left with the ashes of the Korean War, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Having three meals a day was an unattainable luxury for many, who relied on donations from developed countries. “Barley hump,” or the pre-harvest period between May and June when there was no food, had been haunting Korea’s rural area for years.
Korean farmers finally overcame their poverty through the Saemaeul Movement.
Those who researched the movement initiated by the late former President Park Chung-hee administration say that its achievement shouldn’t be diminished.
“Each time I interviewed the country’s elderly citizens for research, I asked them what they thought made this country livable. Almost all of them mentioned ‘the Saemaeul Movement.’ It led me to become curious and delve into the subject,” says Rhee Young-hoon, a professor of Korean economic history at Seoul National University.
“It was the starting point of human and social reform,” the professor says.
The Saemaeul Movement was started in 1970 when the country’s per capita income stood at a mere $254. It started with projects to improve the lives of rural communities, such as replacing thatched roofs with modern roofs or establishing irrigation, but its biggest accomplishment was that it instilled a “Can Do Spirit” in farmers based on the values of diligence, self-help, and public participation.
Diverse projects initiated by farmers led to an increase in income. The annual income of the farming households, which stood at a mere 67 percent of urban households in the early 1970s when the movement started, caught up with urban household income by the mid 1970s. The savings rate of rural and fishing households also doubled to 20 percent in the 1970s from 10 percent of 1960s.
However, it is undeniable that the country’s agriculture was given less priority during the rapid economic and industrial development.
The Uruguay Round opened doors for the agricultural market where cheap crops from overseas started pouring in. Starting from the Korea-Chile free trade agreement (FTA) which took effect in 2004 despite resistance by rural communities, Korea has been signing FTAs with numerous countries. It exports more cell phones and automobiles than ever, but agriculture had to sacrifice. Agriculture makes only 2.3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and the farming population halved during the past decade. Four out of 10 people in farming households are senior citizens aged 65 or older.
Some farmers, however, are turning the crisis into opportunity. They are considering ways to enhance the competitive edge of Korean farms, in cooperation with the government.
Jeon Jae-chang, a grape farmer in Yeongcheon, North Gyeongsang Province, is one of them. The veteran farmer who has been growing grapes for 33 years introduced an all-in-one rain shelter system thanks to the government project to help farmers modernize their facilities. By systematically preventing access of birds and other wild animals as well as moths and other insects, he pulled up the productivity by over 10 percent.
A new irrigation system also enhanced the quality of the grapes, by providing water directly to the roots instead of sprinkling. His grapes are known for high quality among wholesalers, sold at prices 20 percent higher than before.
“As the country’s agricultural market is open, local fruit need to be of better quality than before to get competitive edge against imported fruit,” Jeon said. “Farmers should make diversified efforts themselves to survive the FTAs,” he added.
Some farmers go beyond the border, exporting Korean produce. They hope to make “hallyu” in the agricultural market.
Park Beom-seon, who grows melons in Namwon, North Jeolla Province, exports to Asian countries including Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong under his “Melonika” brand.
At his farm, computers automatically measure the amount of solar radiation and control heat and ventilation in the glass houses. They also supply major nutrients for growth, such as nitrogen, phosphate, iron and magnesium, at optimum ratios.
By applying ICT to agriculture, the farm achieved stable production of quality fruit. His melons are sweet and tender, and sold at prices on average 20 percent higher than other melons at the wholesale market.
On top of applying science to agriculture, Park stresses that farms should establish their own brands. He was supported by the government project to nurture a local fruit brand so that local farmers can compete with multinational brands following the opening up of the market.
“Differentiation comes from the brand, which tells the quality of the produce. We plan to continue our investment in this,” Park said. Through successful promotion and marketing, 37 tons of Melonika melons were exported in 2015, and the exports totaled 22 tons in the first half of this year alone.
Despite many challenges, experts note that Korea’s agriculture has great potential to make a leap forward. One such sign is that urbanites are increasingly heading to rural areas to dedicate themselves to farming.
According to the agriculture ministry, the number of urban households who headed to rural areas snowballed to 44,586 in 2014 from 4,067 in 2010. Korea Rural Economic Institute (KREI) expects 9.5 million people to have joined the move by 2033.
While those in their 50s who retired from their jobs have been leading the move to go rural, the trend is showing signs of change. Young people in their 30s and 40s as well as those in their 20s are increasingly gaining interest in farming.
“These people have the potential to be innovative drivers in rural Korea,” says Ma Sang-jin, a researcher at KREI. He cited Statistics Korea data showing that 78.4 percent of those who returned to rural areas have junior college degrees or higher. It contrasts with traditional elderly farmers among whom only 10.6 percent are educated at that level.
The government plan of achieving the “sixth industrialization” of agriculture is also attracting those interested in farming. It aims at integrating the primary agricultural industry with secondary and tertiary industries of manufacturing and service, to create new value added products. Processing agricultural produce into new products or developing tourism programs are some of the examples. The project is especially drawing the attention of urbanites with higher degrees or special skills.
“Korean agriculture is facing many changes such as globalization, new consumption pattern, and growing interest in ecology. It needs to expand its scope to create new value,” KREI noted in a report.