You know what’s really amazing about Korea?
Agriculture is really interesting here because it crops up in the least expected places. Tiny family farms can be found under freeways or wedged between high-rise apartments and a triple-story McDonald’s. Just behind my neighborhood, which is comprised entirely of high-rise apartments and small family run businesses, there is a very tranquil man made pond surrounded by a sufficient little irrigation system that feeds into a series of unexpectedly charming family farms. You can walk five minutes down the street and feel like you’re in the countryside, freed from the branding of the재벌 (Chaebol), Korea’s elite monopoly companies.
Then, not too far in the distance, you’ll see the KTX speed right by a cherry orchard. And if you turn your back to the pond, you’ll miss the mountains on the other side of the valley because more high-rise apartments block the horizon.
This paradox between industrialization and tradition is the perfect focal point through which to examine Korea’s current state of existence. Forty-some odd years after the country began its rapid climb to success, there is still a very real tension between the old and the new.
In the classroom, I see students come in with their eyes half opened and their feet dragging. As the world knows, they are tired. Korean kids are so tired. They go to school a lot. I mean, A LOT, and it’s worthy of the all caps. We’re talking 8 hours of regular school followed by four hours of one academy followed by maybe two or three hours of another academy. Their schedules change every day, but they usually don’t get home until midnight or later. Like any other kid, they have to take some time to themselves to wind down, which means they aren’t falling asleep until about 2 a.m., according to my students’ testimonies.
The reason for this, as even the exhausted kids will aptly remind you, is because their parents have hammered the idea into their head that the country’s future depends on their ability to study hard. And it’s true- the future success of Korea does depend on the success of its future leaders.
Korea is all about the bali-bali, or the hurry hurry. Everything needs to be done fast and with precision. Everything needs to be bigger and better and more electronic and more lucrative. People need to make money and invent stuff. Fast!
This push into the future happens at break-neck speed. Businesses that can’t thrive in the environment are gutted and re-sold to the next entrepreneur in line. This usually happens overnight but in some cases it can take as long as three days (gasp!) to re-purpose a building. They waste no time putting a for-lease sign in the window.
But as future-oriented as Korean culture can be, it is also rooted in tradition. Respect for elders and the Korean bloodline is paramount to the culture, as is familial identity. School kids wear uniforms because of the traditional beliefs surrounding the collective image.
There are also a lot of conservative beliefs surrounding personal relationships. Korean marriages are steeped with tradition and ideas about devotion. Women who marry the oldest son of a family are in for an especially demanding job, as they must host all of the main holidays, cooking and cleaning up after the relatives. For outsiders this seems sexist or backwards, but tradition lovers say it is just an act of selflessness. Selflessness and service are seen as ways to show respect and gratitude.
Homosexuality, on the other hand, is out of the scope of society, either denied entirely or banned. It is still the status quo for women to marry young and raise children, though I am told this is changing as more women are deciding not to get married.
But the farms are my favorite example of the tug between future and past, because the farms refuse to give in to modernization. In all fairness, this is partly because they can’t.
A long time ago, when Korea gained independence and began to work towards establishing itself, one of the first things the government did was parcel off bits of land to families so they could grow food for themselves. The land became the property of the families. As Korea progressed and built expansive cities, many young people moved into the cities to find respectable office jobs. Many families sold their farms to the Chaebol and other companies that built over the land. Now, most people live in high-rise apartments and buy their food from markets or grocery stores.
But agriculture has remained virtually stagnant when compared to the growth of other industries in Korea over the past 40 years. Because of the small size of the farms, farmers have not been able to utilize large industrial farming techniques popular for boosting productivity in large countries like the U.S., where major cash crops like wheat, soy, and corn are government subsidized by the bushel.
The Korean government has also subsidized agriculture and continues to do so in hopes of raising productivity, but to little avail. While some modern farming techniques have kept agriculture on a steady climb, the domineering harvesting technique is still the farmer’s own two hands, and the seasonal help he gets from visiting family members and school children.
Historically, lobbying groups have formed and protested every time the government has looked into boosting imports of major foods from other countries in hopes of maintaining a food supply for the growing working class. During the U.S.’s debacle with mad cow disease, citizens created a boycott against the product. Many foreign food companies, like Dannon yogurts, are required to produce a certain percentage of the products they sell in Korea on Korean soil, using Korean milk products and Korean workers.
Some say this has hurt Korea’s economic relations in the global market but it does seem to have secured Korea’s self-reliance on domestically produced foods. The majority of the produce eaten in Korea is grown in Korea, usually not far from where it is sold. That’s quite an accomplishment considering larger countries like the U.S. are having a whole host of social, economic, political, and health issues as a result of their dependence on imported agricultural technology, foods, and food products.
But the concern that comes to mind when I look out into the summer-green rice paddies and lush rows of stone fruit is what’s going to happen when all the farmers die? The only people I have ever seen working on the farms are all elderly, their backs bent over from a lifetime of planting and picking and squatting. There have been efforts on the part of the Korean government to get young people interested in carrying on the agricultural legacy, but they haven’t been very wide sweeping. There are virtually no young people who are interested in taking over the family farm.
When the older generation passes on, who will take up the burden of the country’s food supply? Will Korea turn to imported crops? And if so, how will this affect their race to the top of the proverbial ladder that is the global economy?
These are all questions that will have to stand the test of time and it will be interesting to watch the developments of Korean agriculture over the next twenty or so years. But as it stands today, Korean agriculture is one of the rare facets of traditional life that remains virtually unchanged.