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Korean Cultural Agrarianism: Food Production Politics

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'Money is an idol. Agriculture is the place that preserves eternal sacred value since it maintains human life....” —Unknown: “A 1923 editorial quotation in the Korean magazine Kaebyok under the title of 'The Fate of New Korea and the Status of the Peasant'

To give one of many definitions of Agrarianism, a short one is defined by Canadian Norman Wirzba as “a way of living and thinking as to protect serve and celebrate life” (Wirzba, 8). Since the Industrial Revolution, the complexity of taking a natural substance and distributing it out to the people has been a complex undertaking to those in positions of authority. Agrarianism in contrast to most capitalist ways of thinking, says that to benefit collective society, there should be less emphasis on the ‘I’ in regards to current land use instead would focus on the ‘we’.

To properly argue agrarianism in a cultural and in a political sense, the subject of food production will be interpreted through an alternative cultural perspective. Agrarianism and its interaction with urban and capitalist forces on the Korean peninsula will be discussed and tuning into the history regarding the sustainability, reliability,and self-sufficiency of food production; through enacted policies and mainstream ideologies of the time. As well, advocating those policies with agrarian philosophical theories both within Korean culture and comparing to recent environmental agrarians.

The discussion of Korean agrarianism the begins with the Korean agrarian response to the reliability of economic structures in the 1920s and ’30s with a history of political class conflict and the stance agrarian advocates took in policy discussions. The Japanese had a very large impact on the Korean peninsula at this time, as they had invaded and created a vassal Korea from 1910-1945, bringing with them western forms of agricultural capitalism. The purpose of this was to maximize the efficiency and output of the production of foodstuff, rice, in particular, using Korea as a breadbasket for the Japanese markets. However the reliance on this economic strategy strained the agriculture sector on the Korean peninsula causing friction and resulted in an economic imbalance between the wealthy landowners and their peasants; an example of this was a 1925 governmental report showing “...that those with over [2.45 acres] of land had an average surplus of 5,582 won, whereas most landless tenants had negative income balances.”(Shin, Gi-Wook pg. 790). Aswell the proceeding Great Depression caused by reckless western capitalism, recessed Korean rice value massively, affecting those poorer farmers who had invested so much of their toil into procuring the product only to be rewarded with debt, while the landowners were largely unaffected by the debt crisis. This economic outcome seems to fall into the same industrialism that Wendell Berry speaks against as “placeless and displacing”(Wirzba, N. pg 46), in the sphere of influence of a capital seeking system not tethered by a Korean cultural structure but dominated by a foreign cultures ignorant desire for more and so not for the benefit of the land itself, therefore, leading to unfairness and as displayed here, instability and social friction.

Due to the social unrest between the socio-economic classes, the arguments of the major Korean political ideologies of the time, split in three ways, all centering around the idea of self-sufficiency. One formed around a communist framework which placed a large emphasis on the rural field worker, attempting to organize and encourage unions, however, they were not popular among rural conservatives and their practices promoted agrarian thought only as a “step toward a future proletarian revolution”(Shin, Gi-Wook pg. 972), after this period they would utilize modernization techniques to accomplish a Marxist utopia. Another view was one of capitalist centrism which centered on urbanites who diagnosed the problem of unrest in rural areas as a “lack of education and enlightenment”(Shin, Gi-Wook pg. 972) showing a lack of care and a sense of lowly otherness when it came to matters concerning farmers. The concept of agrarianism at this time in Korea however according to Gi-Wook Shin had a very diverse following at this time with some advocates professing “[a desire for a more well organized religious version, some wanting a more utilitarian version of utopian villages or some more radical proponents agrarianism attempted to form their own agrarian society removed nearly entirely from Korea.]”(Shin, Gi-Wook pg. 973) To defend all of those positions at face value would be foolish as they seemingly contradict one another, but despite these divisions that existed in the agrarian community, according to Gi-Wook Shin “all [agrarians] held a strong anti-capitalist, anti-urban [belief]…[as well as an outlook similar to] Japanese Confucian tradition, which revered the peasant as the basis of the world under heaven..., [thus] provided the conceptual underpinnings for Korean agrarianism.”(Shin, Gi-Wook pg. 973).This is particularly interesting, as spiritual notions were very much inherent and ingrained in Korean society and the push from a majority of agrarians to instead reform the moral structure of Korean society to place a larger focus on spiritual and moral power is similar to the idea of the soul presented by Norman Wirzba. Within his reasoning, he uses the Christian idea of the soul not as an otherworldly essence but a physical moral barometer grounded in the present and he extends this idea by way of cultural practices to the land, through “ager”(Wizba, Norman pg 108). Although in various forms, Korean agrarianism presented itself as a way of living and when the prospect of capital came to the forefront of the conversation it appears some had forgone their roots grounded in a deep connection with the earth and allowed the urbanization of Korea at the expense of both the worker and the fields being worked upon. The underlying message of these advocates who had espoused that all of Korea's land/rural workers are the true backbone of Korea and therefore must be treated with dignity and not as a limited means to an end is not something to be overlooked.

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In terms of the sustainability of agriculture, post-1945, the Korean peninsula was free of Japanese interference but faced a crisis as a complete nation due to conflicting political ideas. This had lead to the fracture and break off the North into a communist dictatorship aligning with Soviet Russia and the South maintaining Western democratic ties and aligning themselves with the United States. While the old agrarian ideals of the 1920s and ’30s were still advocated for, they were not as fiercely fought once they were brought into the political dialogue, the South policies in particular towards rural and agricultural issues soon became infected with a western capitalist ethos and fell victim to industrialization. An example of this fall from the agrarian advocates of the 1920’s, is the way the South Korean government handled environmental policy particularly in the redistribution laws that were drawn up with American counsel in 1948, which according to a Report “AGRARIAN REFORM ACTIVITIES IN THE REPUBLIC OF KOREA” which states gave the National Land Administration of Republic of Korea the power to:

“transfer of a large portion of Japanese landholdings to the newly established National Land Administration for sale to Korean farmers with a limit of [2.45 acres] per purchaser. Appropriate legislation, however, was not enacted until the end of 1949, and only the outbreak of the Korean war in June 1950 spurred the government to implement the program….Certain exemptions, however, from the redistribution law, allowed at the discretion of the government, apparently permitted South Korean landlords to buy additional large tracts of Japanese land and to oppose successfully further redistribution. As a result, the redistribution of former Japanese lands has been completed on paper but not in fact.” ( Pollock & Schrock pg. 4, 5)

This had flown directly in the face of past Korean agrarian movements such as The Korean and Peasant Society which had promoted and encouraged the use of “collective farming and purchase of consumer goods to achieve village self-sufficiency [successfully] establishing 180 mutual credit unions by 1933.”(Shin, Gi-Wook pg.796). Another distortion of the self-sufficiency collectivist ethos occurred in the establishment of the New Village Movement in 1971. This movement was socially organized by the government due to increasing unrest over income intake of urban workers compared to rural workers. Its mission was to “Seek to achieve food sufficiency and pacify the countryside...through infrastructure projects [including] the construction of roads, agricultural initiatives that distributed new types of fertilizer and strains of seeds...and political indoctrination classes that taught villagers how to “improve” their lives.” (Park, Albert pg. 3)

However, this plan was not as beneficial to the rural farmer as the government made it seem instead of allowing for the rural farmers to maintain sufficiency with the government It unitarily imposed its development program on and tightly monitored and controlled local communities because it believed that it was the only modern rational entity that could determine the “correct” content and direction of reforms.

To conclude, if the Korean agrarian thought of the 1920s and ’30s had been properly maintained through history, by way of the methods of sustainability, reliability, and self-sufficiency of food production it would have given a greater freedom to pursue policies in which government, values the environment as an intrinsic part of our histories and rural workers become natural necessity.


  1. Wirzba, N.(2003). The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
  2. Park, Albert. (2013) “The Politics of Designing Agrarian Affairs in South Korea.” Korea Economic Institute, 2012 pp. 1-12
  3. Shin, Gi-Wook. “Agrarianism: A Critique of Colonial Modernity in Korea.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 41, no. 4, 1999, pp. 784–804. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  4. Pollock C,Daniel & Schrock L, Joann . “AGRARIAN REFORM ACTIVITIES IN THE REPUBLIC OF KOREA”,SPECIAL OPERATIONS RESEARCH OFFICE, The American University, 5010 Wisconsin Avenue, N,W, Washington, D, C. 20016 pp. 1-25
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Korean Cultural Agrarianism: Food Production Politics. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from
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