A couple of days ago, I had the happy opportunity to meet Prof. Yi Hŏnch’ang (이헌창, 고려대), one of Korea’s leading economical historians. The meeting took place at a conference, which, frankly, resembled more a sort of diplomatic event, but for me, talking with Prof. Yi was enough of a reward.
I was presented with his mighty volume, “An Outline of Korean Economic History” (한국경제통사, 제3판, 법문사, 2006), and, a complete profane in the field of economic history as I am, I became completely immersed in the reading! The secret of the appeal of this book is its ambitious goal – namely, to get a consistent picture of socio-economical developments in the country from ancient times up to the neo-liberal epoch from a sort of long-term perspective. You do not have to be an economic history specialist to appreciate this kind of approach. And the last chapters, on Korea’s industrialisation and all the concommitant issues, written from a seemingly “neutral” position, but using of a wealth of data and analythic methods, offers a historisised perspective on what is happening in the country now.
For example, the unabashed ferocity which Roh Moo-hyun’s government demonstrates in sacrificing agriculture to the FTA deal with the USA seems to be partly explained by the fact that, as Prof. Yi shows, “underprioritising” agriculture has been Korea’s rulers main unstated policy ever since Park Chung Hee’s regime. On the surface, the “New Village Movement” provided the regime with a good “popular” face and village infrastructure was significantly improved (the area under irrigation jumped by around 80%, new sorts of rice were introduced, the amount of chemical fertiliser used for 1 ha jumped from 92 to almost 400 kg, etc.). But in reality, the main use Park Chung Hee saw in the villages was their workforce, which was constantly pumped into the cities by the enormous and widening income gap.
The real amount of investment in agriculture was disproportionately low, and Korea steadily became an agricultural product importer – the ratio of import dependence in agriculture being 6% in 1965 and 71% in 1995 (I understand it, it is around 80% today). The villagers became heavily divided into a minority of successful agro-businessmen and a large mass of either relatively or very poor peasants – the tenancy ratio was 28% in 1990, and is growing. By the way, many of the evicted peasants in Taech’uri, P’yŏngt’aek, are in fact tenants, who get very little compensation from the government (since, legally speaking, they owned nothing in the village) and have literally nowhere to go.
The ratio of debt to assets among Korean peasants is 12% for 2000 (only 0,7% in 1975), which is an astonishingly high figure, given the high land prices. So, Roh is now going to deal the final coup de grace to Korea’s peasantry, basically continuing Park Chung Hee’s strategic line – instead of, for example, following the example of Norway, where the import dependency ratio in agriculture is only 50%. What sort of ecological consequences the turning of some selected areas (like the metropolitan region) into huge industrial estates cum apartment villages, and making the rest of the country a sparcely populated territory will have, I can only guess….