Several days ago, I was happy to be presented a newly published book by the publishers who had also earlier printed two of my own books – that is, by Seoul-based Inmul kwa sasang (인물과 사상). The book is entitled “Ssalpap chŏnchaeng” (쌀밥 전쟁: “War for rice”, or how should I translate it?), and written by certain Kim Hwanp’yo – a non-academic, obviously from the circle of Prof. Kang Junman (a Chŏnbuk University media scholar and famous social ciritic, well-known for his habit to “name names” while criticising people and institutions – a dangerous thing to do in our position, I would add…), who previously co-authored several essay collections of political and “cultural criticism” including one on the history of S. Korea’s official ‘anti-communism.’
This new work, a surprisingly detailed and professionally written account for somebody who is seemingly neither a historian nor a specialist in the field of agricultural economy, deals with the story of S. Korean rice agriculture, and mainly in 1960s-70s. The picture which emerges from reading it is helpful in understanding what is going on in North Korea in a sort of wider historical perspective—you get to know that S. Korea achieved self-sufficiency in rice in 1976, when it harvested 36 million sŏk of rice, and that this achievement was, in fact, quite shaky. S. Korea had to resume rice imports in 1980, when it harvested only 24 million sŏk due to a large-scale crop failure. It was happy enough to do so as it had enough currency at the time, and then became a stable client of the Californian rice cultivators – who were politically well-backed enough to press Chŏn’s dictatorship to buy their wares throughout the early 1980s, even when S.Korea did not really need them.
N. Korea, with its depleted foreign exchange reserves and without cheap Soviet fuel and fertilizer, did not manage in the mid-1990s to escape the same plight which Southerners barely escaped in 1980. The way to rice self-sufficiency under Park was a bumpy one, and involved lots of disciplinary action taken in a good Japanese imperial spirit—of the kind the Western public would probably more readily associate with North Korea. It included designating special “no-rice days” (무미일 – no rice to be sold anywhere, and presumably no rice to be eaten in home dining-rooms, although this part probably was not really well-enforced), ordering in 1963 that all rice merchants to blend 20% non-rice cereals (잡곡) into their wares, and ordering restaurant owners to do the same with the rice they served. More resembling the good old imperial days—as well as the realities of the North Korean situation—were housewifes’ “public meetings for the sake of encouraging flour-based meals” (분식권장궐기대회), which were supposed to force home kitchens to comply with the governmental policy of “분식의 날”—bread and noodles only, none of that luxury good called ‘white rice.’ These housewives who were deplorably ignorant about the ways of making good food without rice, were taught to do so in special “flour-based meal consultation centres” (분식상담소), run from 10.00 to 16.00 every weekday by the “National Reconstruction Movement” (재건국민운동본부). And they had to study assiduously. If the share of white rice in the lunch boxes of their children exceeded prescribed norm, and this heinous crime was uncovered during the regular “lunch box checks” (도시락 검사), the punishment (that is, the corporal punishment for the children) would be severe, and their children’s grades for behaviour might suffer.
This “rice economizing movement” (절미운동) ended only in the late 1970s—and the age in which newspapers explained that the high intelligence of Westerners was precisely thanks to the fact that they ate bread and not rice, became just an (unwelcome) part of the collective memory. It all shows something about the nature of post-colonial statehood on the Korean Peninsula – but the Western media did not try that much to poke fun at Park Chung Hee’s ways to discipline and punish his subjects, while very similar things (on a much worse scale, I have to acknowledge) done by Kim Il Sung, were always mocked in very good humour, were they not? I always wonder what proportion of Western—and non-Western—consumers of Samsung products are aware of what would happen to any Samsung employee who tried to unionize his/her company?