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Prof. Yi Hŏnch’ang (이헌창) and his “Outline of Korean Economic History”

Filed under: — noja @ 8:56 am Print

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….

4 Responses to “Prof. Yi Hŏnch’ang (이헌창) and his “Outline of Korean Economic History””

  1. lirelou says:

    Good post. However economically successful Korea may be, and however faint the danger of a war might seem to those in the government, that threat is dangerous enough to warrant maintaining a certain level of agriculture even if it results in higher costs to the consumer. We are, after all, dealing with costs that present consumers can bear. A more responsible government would establish a base line of agricultural production below which Korea cannot be allowed to fall, and do everything in its power to see that their policies keep such a minimum in place.

  2. Owen says:

    I use this book quite a lot for reference purposes but I admit that I’ve never got past the premodern part. From what you say about it perhaps I should make the effort to read the whole thing. In general I like Prof. Yi Hŏnch’ang’s approach to economic history a lot.

    Readers can find his homepage here, where there are links to many of his papers, including this one in English.

    On the subject of import dependency, I was quite surprised to learn that in the UK the percentage is only around 31% (I wonder if this is actually an underestimate or old figure though). In any case, I think one of the most important aspects of this is the relationship of import dependency to peak oil. The increasing distances over which food is being transported from source to consumer are just not sustainable (quite apart from the massive oil imputs required in the production stage of large-scale agro-industry – fertilisers, pesticides etc). There’s a good article on this subject here.

  3. noja says:

    Well, in my understanding what you are saying is exactly the main trap in the whole capitalist system – the short-term market efficiency prevails over long-term ecological (and ultimately economical) concerns. Today, around 60% of kimch’i sold here in Korea, is being produced in China and shipped from there to here – which is profitable under the present oil/fuel prices, but may become less profitable when the oil will cost more than 100 $ per barrel in 4-5 years. And then we will have to invest huge money in rebuilding the production of cabbage, harlic and other stuffs, which is rapidly declining today. “Invisible hand” is pretty wasteful, isn’t it?

  4. [...] If you want to read Jamie in more analytical frame of mind check out his piece on Korean Neo-liberalism and Empire at ZNet. There is another eye-witness report here, while over at Frog in a Well, Pak Noja posted some thoughts on the economics of Korean agriculture and what liberalisation means for Korean farmers. [...]

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