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World Current

What does the year 1894 have to do with Korea’s food security?

by Taryn Assaf

A Call to Arms

The people are the root of the nation. If the root withers, the nation will be enfeebled. Heedless of their responsibility for sustaining the state and providing for its people, the officials build lavish residences in the countryside, scheming to ensure their own well-being at the expense of the resources of the nation. How can this be viewed as proper? We are wretched village people far from the capital, yet we feed and clothe ourselves with the bounty from the sovereign’s land. We cannot sit by and watch our nation perish. The whole nation is as one, its multitudes united in their determination to raise the righteous standard of revolt, and to pledge their lives to sustain the state and provide for the livelihood of the people. However startling the action we take today may seem, you must not be troubled by it. For as we felicitously live out the tranquil years ahead, each man secure in his occupation – when all the people can enjoy the blessings of benevolent kingly rule, how immeasurably joyful will we be!

This proclamation was written by the leaders of the Tonghak peasant army, a group that formed out of the Tonghak religion. It was first sent out to Korean peasant farmers in 1894, and it embodies the struggles of farmers at the time and foreshadows the problems to be faced by farmers in the future. It is a call to arms- an ultimatum. It says, we can not allow ourselves to be exploited by the rich any longer. We can not sit idly by while our brothers and sisters are forced deeper and deeper into debt and poverty. We will not allow the rich to diminish our humanly worth by taking advantage of our livelihoods. We must fight this oppression, or die because of it.  Who were these peasants and what led them to the point of rebellion?

The Tonghak religion formed in the 1860’s in opposition to the ideals and exploitative nature of the yangban (the ruling class) and foreign influence in Korea, most notably Western missionaries and Japanese merchants that threatened the Korean peasant’s way of life. It combined aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shamanism and rejected Western Catholicism. In addition to its religious foundations, Tonghak was a social movement that advocated for the improvement of peasants’ conditions, an end to the exploitation of peasants by the yangban and reform of the corrupt government. The religion and its ideals became very popular among the peasantry, as it strongly advocated equality among all people (the religion stated that even man and God were created equal once man understood the equality of all people). Peasant farmers in central Jeolla province strongly identified with this belief and the religion and movement as a whole. The peasants here were lucky to farm on what was considered to be Korea’s agricultural goldmine, and yet they were concurrently suffocating with debt from especially unsympathetic tax policies enacted by the local government—money which went straight into the pockets of the local Governor. For instance, exploitive miscellaneous taxes were applied to anticipated rice shortages, anticipated rice spillages and anticipated loss of rice during transport; a 10 percent interest was applied to loans for grain at the time of repayment; and Governors falsified records and distorted numerical figures on grain repayments. These abuses were so detrimental that 30-40% of all peasant households in 1893 did not have enough grain to last for 4 months after harvest and 70% of the population was unable to stock food for the entire year. The shared oppressive experience and a vision for a just and democratic future  led to the Tonghak peasant rebellion of 1894. The Tonghak peasant army was initially successful in its mission for change- they temporarily occupied the city of Jeonju and negotiated a truce with the government on the condition that economic and social reforms be implemented.  However, the pause in conflict that came with negotiations eventually worked against the Tonghak army.  The Korean government had called in both the Chinese and Japanese forces to help quell the Tonghak army, the momentary ceasefire giving way to the Sino-Japanese War and the eventual Japanese occupation of Korea.

The Tonghak saw and understood that their way of life as farmers, their right to having a decent livelihood, and their dignity as human beings was being exploited for profit. They understood that the government was not on the side of the people, and was not interested in being a government that the common people supported. They opposed upper-class practices that benefitted the wealthy and strangled those below them. They fought for a future they believed in, one characterized by equality for all people. A future where everyone had the right to a decent living, and where the prerogative of one class was not maintained at the expense of another. The same sentiments can be felt by farmers globally today, who in the face of WTO agreements, IMF and World Bank conditionalities, and multinational agribusiness, are still struggling in much the same way as their Tonghak brothers and sisters. Increasing dependency on foreign food markets, decreasing food self sufficiency and security, decreasing farmer populations, decreasing arable land and fertile soil and increasing debt among small farmers are some of the problems facing the agricultural sector. The human right to farm is under seige, and thus the livelihoods of millions of people in the world today.

Tonghak Today

The agricultural sector in Korea is in crisis. Farmers are being suffocated by debt and have their hands tied by trade agreements. Food sovereignty is defined by Via Campesina as the “human right for all peoples and nations to grow food in ways that are culturally, ecologically and economically appropriate for them.” Korea’s food sovereignty is being threatened. Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living from farming alone; as the influx of foreign agricultural imports increases, domestic products fall out of competition and the market becomes increasingly dependent on those imports. As a nation’s food sovereignty decreases, its food self-sufficiency (the degree to which a country is self-sufficient in producing its own food) also decreases. For instance, as of 2004, Korea’s food self-sufficiency rate was 25.3%. However, taking rice out of the equation, the number drops to an appalling three percent. This is due to the opening of Korea’s markets to global agricultural products. Rice is currently the only product not open to the global market. However, Korea’s rice sector is schedule to open in 2014. Currently, Korea imports 90% of its food products and is the fifth largest importer of U.S agricultural products. The same trends can be found in most countries worldwide that have entered into a WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) or a free trade agreement with the U.S. Once an agreement is ratified, a country must open its economy to foreign products. And with the U.S. and European Union’s markets already completely saturated and heavily subsidized by about $1 billion a day, peasant and family farmers around the world without similar subsidies are simply unable to compete. The AOA has become a new form of imperialism over small farmers worldwide, as it has shifted the control of global food security into the hands of big agribusiness and corporate elites. Since Korea’s opening of its markets in 1995, the state of farming and of farmers has sufficiently declined. For instance, in 1970, Korea’s food self-sufficiency rate was 80.5%; its farming population has decreased from over 14 million in 1970 to just over 3 million in 2004; and debt increased four fold to an average of $30,000 per household in 2003. With the Korean agricultural sector increasingly controlled by foreign powers, the concerns of Tonghak are still true today.

Yet peasants continue to be at the forefront of their own struggles. Korean peasant’s philosophies have remained largely unchanged since the days of Tonghak, even as the methods of exploitation against them continue to evolve. At the WTO conference held in Cancun in 2003, a Korean farmer named Lee Kyung Hae climbed a chain link fence wearing a sign that read “WTO kills farmers” and stabbed himself in the heart. His self immolation was a call to arms for millions of peasants worldwide who are forced off their land and driven into poverty by free trade policies.

During WTO talks in Hong Kong in 2005, one thousand Korean farmers called for an end to WTO in agriculture. 50 of them jumped into the freezing cold waters of Victoria Harbor in an attempt to reach the conference hall. Again in 2005, hundreds of thousands of farmers and citizens protested Korean imports of U.S beef. Founded in 2009, the Sisters Garden Plot sends locally grown and harvested seasonal produce by women peasant farmers to subscribers year round in an effort to achieve greater food sovereignty in South Korea.

With the imminent opening of Korea’s rice markets next year, the Korean Peasant’s League has stated that they “will struggle and prevent it at the risk of [their] lives because rice is [their] final livelihood and destiny.” It seems imperative at this time to do what is absolutely necessary to maintain what little food sovereignty Korea has left and to support and encourage local organizations in the struggle to challenge the WTO and rebuild Korea as a food sovereign nation. The spirit of Tonghak must be resurrected; we must not allow farmers to perish- in Korea and around the world- for when a nation’s food security, sovereignty and self-sufficiency are threatened, its people are also threatened. Indeed, the Tonghak peasants knew that the people are the root of the nation. If the root withers, the nation will be enfeebled.