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Struggling farmers draw attention to their plight

South Korea

What prompted South Korean farmers to leave the countryside and travel to Busan – the nation’s second most populous city – and protest at the APEC summit on 18 November 2005? And what were the events which contributed to the suicide of two South Korean farmers the previous week?

Founded in 1989, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) is comprised of 21 Pacific Rim countries and aims to accelerate regional economic integration between these nations, leading to enhanced prosperity. This institution has been accused of promoting agreements which impose restrictions on national laws and impinge on labour rights.

The backdrop

The Republic of Korea, commonly known as South Korea, is a predominantly mountainous country with only 22% of its land arable1, and therefore suitable for agriculture. Following the Korean War (1950–1953), a large proportion of food supplies were imported from the US through an aid programme, which resulted in domestic grain prices plummeting. Frustrated and dissatisfied by this state of affairs, many South Korean farmers abandoned their land and flocked to urban areas.

The 1970s saw the US charging for its surplus food exports, and in response, a Green Revolution was adopted in South Korea. Designed to boost domestic agricultural production, it focussed on the development and dissemination of new crop varieties, increased chemical fertilizer use and enhanced mechanisation of the sector. South Korea’s agricultural productivity improved immensely.

The Green Revolution, however, did not bring only positive changes to South Korean agriculture. In some cases, agricultural development was promoted through forced means, with farmers obliged to partake in certain activities. For example, agriculturalists were forced to grow a particular newly-developed species of rice, rather than the indigenous pest-resistant variety. Farmers also became reliant on chemicals and fertilizers, and consequently began to favour cash crops, such as garlic, to cover their rising costs.

Adding to the farmers’ struggles, in the 1980s, the USA placed pressure on South Korea to open the Korean market to American products. This, along with more recent bilateral trade agreements with Chile and Europe, contributed to the decline of domestic agriculture. Several independent farmers movements were created, such as the Korean Advanced Agriculture Federation in 1987. They requested more protection, and organised street rallies and protests urging the government to restrict further agricultural imports and provide more support to farmers. Farmers’ difficulties were further exacerbated by their rising levels of debt, and associated substantial interest repayments.

Until 2005, the Korean government subsidised farmers by purchasing their products at inflated prices before selling them for a lower price to consumers. This system of subsidisation proved unsustainable for the government and the national Bank of Korea financed numerous loans to support this political decision.

At the time of the 2005 events, the agricultural sector represented just 3% of South Korea’s Global Domestic Product (GDP) while 8% of Koreans worked in this field2. The sizeable rural community in South Korea is unusual in an industrialised country, but many farmers felt their views were not being taken into consideration by their country’s leadership.

With the above constraints, Korean farmers have long faced difficulties with the route their country has taken towards development and globalisation.

The escalation pathway

Many related events took place until the plight of South Korean farmers peaked in 2005 with several suicides prior to the APEC summit. These included:

  1. After the Korean War, the US food aid programme which ran from 1950 to 1970, contributed to the industrialisation of the country at the expense of agriculture.
  2. The introduction of industrialisation of agriculture began in the 1970s with the Green Revolution, which aimed to increase agricultural yields by using various forms of mechanisation.
  3. At this time, agricultural activities were kept under state governance and in the 1980s, the government introduced a rice-purchasing programme to stabilise food prices.
  4. The Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations, which spanned from 1986 to 1993, opened the Korean rice market to imports for the first time.
  5. At the fifth Ministerial Conference of the WTO in Cancun, Mexico in 2003, a Korean farmer stabbed himself in the heart while screaming “WTO kills farmers”. He was protesting with other Korean farmers against a further liberalisation of the Korean market.
  6. In 2004, the South Korea government agreed to raise its rice import quota from 4% to 7.96% of the country’s total consumption for a ten-year period before fully opening its market.
  7. In March 2005, the Korean Assembly repealed the rice-purchasing program, which commenced in the 1980s, leaving farmers subject to the effects of globalisation.
  8. In November 2005, two farmers allegedly committed suicide by drinking pesticide in protest of plans to liberalise South Korea’s rice market.

Around 3,126 persons died from self-ingestion of pesticide in 2005 in South Korea, representing 89% of the people who died by suicide in this year.

The event

In mid-November 2005, two South Korean farmers committed suicide, allegedly due to the liberalisation of the Korean rice market5.

An APEC summit took place in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city on 18 and 19 November 2005. This meeting involved, amongst others, US President George W Bush, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin. South Korean farmers planned to protest at this key event against South Korea’s plans to liberalise its rice market.

On the first day of the APEC summit, roughly 3,000 farmers6 held a ceremony in memory of one of the farmers who had committed suicide. This was followed by a rally near the convention centre where the summit was held.

While early estimates suggested that over 100,000 protestors7 would attend the rally, South Korean police managed to prevent the bulk of attendees from reaching the city. Nevertheless, some 4,000 farmers8 marched through the city to the convention centre to express their anger and frustration about the opening up of the domestic market.

Police forces used water canons on the protesters, while activists managed to move containers that blocked their pathway towards the centre. Eleven police officers were reportedly injured when they fell from these containers. The gathering was dispersed when police threatened to use a helicopter to release water onto the crowd.

Early intervention

South Korean farmers are struggling because of the international trade agreements that is impacting the domestic market.

The South Korean approach to agricultural development since the end of the Korean War government has not been sustainable. During the period from 1950 to 1970, the dominant reliance on international aid to boost the industrialization of the country also weakened the agricultural sector and threatened the country’s food sovereignty. A more reasonable approach could have been to use the food aid program while still developing agriculture. Industrialisation benefits should have helped farmers to strengthen their businesses and should not only have been reinvested into industrialisation projects.

Moreover, the rice-purchasing program was used to keep the agriculture under the state’s supervision. However, its aim was more to regain farmers’ support to the government than to be a sustainable solution for the country’s agriculture. Inevitably, Korea must comply with international trade rules, especially regarding rice imports. The government could mitigate the consequences of such a change by providing subsidies to the farmers for new grain crops and agricultural products. Diversification improves resilience and it may help farmers to find income sources that are not affected to a great extent by international trade.

Regarding the police violence that has been witnessed during several events, resulting in many casualties and even deaths, the absence of justice for the concerned persons fuelled social unrest.

The government must do what it can to ease public resentment by conducting an official investigation and ensure justice by offering official apologies and means of compensation.

In 2011, South Korea’s suicide rate was the highest among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations (which include Germany, the UK and Japan). This phenomenon affects all population groups, especially young persons and aging farmers, the latter which have easier access to pesticides which many consume to commit suicide.

The government tried to tackle the issue, specifically in rural areas by installing pesticide cabinets displaying suicide hotlines and which are only accessible to one person at a time. However, it is not specified if it is the only mean to access pesticides in rural parts of the countries which would be very surprising because of its inconvenience for farming activities. Moreover, in 2012, the government banned paraquat, a widely used herbicide frequently used to commit suicide in South Korea. This measure seemed to have worked because the suicide rate by employing pesticide decreased by 46% according to a South Korean study published in 2015.

Other initiatives undertaken by the Korean government involve training groups on suicide prevention. Still, the budget allowed to this concerning matter is low, showing that the government doesn’t dedicate itself fully to tackle this problem.

Organic agriculture might be a solution to the struggle faced by the South Korean farmers. Without the use of pesticides and fertilisers, the operating expenses of a farm are reduced. However, growing organic produce would likely be more labour intensive. Organic products are often more expensive than conventional ones and farmers might find a better balance between outgoing costs and profits made. Organic products in South Korea are labelled as 'environmentally friendly' by an official act and despite growing concerns regarding food safety, the consumption of organic products has not significantly increased these past few years in South Korea.

Government incentives to promote organic food might allow farmers to increase their incomes, diversify their products and become more resilient to international fluctuations. More support from the government would also be expected as the price of organic products doesn’t cover the cost of products which are wasted as they don’t meet consumers’ standards. Perhaps South Korea could implement a similar policy as in Europe where subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy now help farmers who set up measures to preserve the environment.

Key themes

Poor agricultural management, exports, government, industrialisation, police, subsidies, suicide, unrest.


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  2. Lee, W., et al., 2008. Deaths from pesticide poisoning in South Korea: trends over 10 years. [online] International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, February 2009, 82(3), pp365-37, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00420-008-0343-z (accessed 29 August 2019).
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  9. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0128980 (accessed 29 August 2019).
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  11. https://www.apec.org/About-Us/About-APEC (accessed 28 August 2019).
  12. Wikipedia, 2019. Agriculture in South Korea. [online] Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agriculture_in_South_Korea (accessed 28 August 2019).
  13. https://en.wikinews.org/wiki/20,000_South_Koreans_take_to_the_streets_to_protest_APEC (accessed 29 August 2019
  14. https://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/MMHC-Country-Press-Note-Korea.pdf (accessed 29 August 2019).
  15. https://zeenews.india.com/home/activists-kick-off-antiapec-protests_255551.html


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