Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in South Korea

Byeong-Seon Yoon is professor of economics at Konkuk University in South Korea. He is author of “Who’s Threatening Our Dinner Table?: The Power of Transnational Agribusiness,” in the November 2006 Monthly Review. Won-Kyu Song received his master’s degree from Konkuk University and is a researcher at the Research Institute Nyurm, which was co-founded by KWPA and KPL. Hae-Jin Lee is assistant professor at Konkuk University. This work was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant funded by the Korean Government (NRF-2010-330-B00159).

On October 10, 2012, the Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA) was awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize at a ceremony held in New York City. This prize is an alternative to the World Food Prize founded by the late Norman Borlaug, “the father of the Green Revolution.” While the World Food Prize emphasizes increased production through technology, the Food Sovereignty Prize champions solutions coming from those most impacted by the injustices of the global food system.1

In order to understand how the KWPA won this prestigious award—even though South Korea’s agriculture contributes only around 2 percent of the nation’s total GDP, while the nation’s market economy is ranked fourteenth among 188 countries—the changes in South Korea’s agriculture under the modern agri-food system need to be examined.

Currently, South Korea is one of the fastest industrializing countries in the world, and this has resulted in a dramatic decline in agriculture. For example, the percentage of farmers in the total population has reduced from 50 percent in the 1970s to 7 percent (or below) in the 2010s, and more than one-fourth of farmland has disappeared. Over the past four decades, farm income has increased by approximately 120 times, while debt has increased more than 1,600 times. In fact, South Korea’s agriculture disintegrated rapidly in the process of industrialization, and under the influence of the global agri-food system. Since processes from the seed to the supermarket are controlled by the corporate food system, South Korea’s grain self-sufficiency, which was over 70 percent during the mid­–1970s, is now approximately 20 percent.

Nevertheless, in terms of the grain self-sufficiency policy, the South Korean government is attempting to establish a method to develop an overseas grain production base and secure a stable channel to import grains, with no intention of increasing domestic agricultural production by protecting small farmers. The government has accelerated the incorporation of South Korea’s agriculture into the global agri-food system by signing the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the EU-South Korea FTA. These agricultural policies, which lead to the collapse of agriculture and sacrifice farmers’ interests, have spurred independent action by farmers. From this perspective, South Korea’s current circumstances are similar to that faced by small farmers around the globe.

Global Agri-food System and South Korean Agriculture

Since 1945, and its liberation from being a Japanese colony, South Korea’s agriculture has been incorporated into a food regime centered on both the United States and global corporations. This process can be divided into three stages.

Stage One: Since the Korean War (1950–1953), a massive amount of U.S. food surpluses were imported through an aid program. South Korea was important to the United States as a critical geopolitical frontline and future customer.2 The U.S. food surplus aid under Public Law 480 (the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954) caused a steep fall in grain prices. As a result, farmers lost the incentive to produce and the agricultural production base began collapsing; some even set fire to agricultural products. A large number of farmers flocked to the city, resulting in the formation of slums and uncontrollable urban sprawl.

Stage Two: In the early 1970s, the United States began charging for its food surplus exports to overcome its monetary crisis. As a result, South Korea introduced energy/capital-intensive, Green Revolution agriculture. Owing to the revised U.S. food aid policy and the global food crisis, the South Korean government tentatively promoted a policy to purchase rice from farmers at rates higher than market price. In addition, the government launched a compulsory agricultural mobilization policy, the Saemaul (New Community) Movement, which was promoted using all the characteristics of the existing autocratic military regime. Farmers were forced to join the development project and their property rights were violated. In addition, traditional houses were replaced with stone tile-roofed houses under the garb of “modernization.”3 A pest-resistant indigenous species of rice was forced out of the market owing to low production. Instead, farmers were forced to farm a high-yield species of rice that was developed through the Green Revolution. By this time, farmers were highly dependent on agricultural chemicals and fertilizers because of the South Korean government’s Green Revolution policy and introduction of an U.S.-style agriculture development model. In order to buy agricultural chemicals and fertilizers, many farmers began farming cash crops such as hot pepper and garlic. This, in turn, accelerated monoculture cropping. Rural communities were destroyed and the long tradition of cooperative labor-sharing practices at the community level collapsed. Farming systems were then mechanized to make up for a lack of labor, leading to skyrocketing debt in farm households.

Stage Three: In the late 1970s, South Korea suffered from inflationary pressure caused by currency inflation in its overseas sectors and the pressure to import U.S. agricultural products. Hence, in the early 1980s the South Korean government emphasized a neoliberal free trade agricultural policy because of the relatively small amount of land in combination with a large population; eventually, the government concluded that the agricultural sector was incompetent. It concentrated national resources on the development of the manufacturing industry. Since indigenous technology remained insufficient and incompetent, a low-wage policy was the only option for ensuring productivity in the manufacturing sector. Laborers’ work conditions were very poor because of the continuous supply of labor from rural areas and the South Korean government’s suppression of the labor union movement. South Korea’s agricultural problems were hence not just agricultural or farmers’ problems; they were connected with social problems such as those related to labor. The low wage-based export policy developed into the free trade policy for agricultural products, while small farmers rapidly disappeared. Despite the collapse of the military dictatorship in the mid–1980s and the establishment of democracy, a comprehensive free trade policy for agricultural products has been continuously promoted, to the detriment of farmers and the progressive side. Further, with the recent bilateral agreements such as the U.S.-South Korea FTA and EU-South Korea FTA, South Korean agriculture has become completely subject to the global agri-food system, which in turn is controlled by a transnational agri-food complex. For example, South Korea has 22.6 percent of grain self-sufficiency (2011) and 56.9 percent of its domestic grain consumption (of its top three import grains: wheat, corn and soybean) is imported from the four major grain trading companies: Cargill, ADM, Bunge, and LDC.

Searching for a Grassroots Alternative

Since the mid–1980s, South Korea’s agriculture has undergone a rapid paradigm shift into the commercial agricultural system under neoliberal free trade agricultural policies. Because of a variety of problems caused by the global agri-food system such as qualitative and quantitative food crises, decrease in farmers’ share of food dollars, and environmental degradation, there was an attempt to nurture an alternative grassroots movement. The alternative agri-food movements promoted in South Korea include those based around organic farming, consumer cooperatives, and, more recently, local food.

The organic farming movement was launched by the Catholic Farmers’ Movement (CFM) in the late 1970s. The CFM sought alternatives to promote farmers’ interests through an increase in the price of agricultural products and solving current problems in rural areas through awareness of new values based on agriculture and community recovery. In the process, there were attempts to eliminate chemical-based farming methods and pursue a community-oriented movement. However, currently South Korea’s organic farming movement is at a critical juncture. The government has promoted an environment-friendly agriculture policy to respond to these market changes, although a stable sales channel for environment-friendly agricultural products is not secured yet. This has caused an increase in the costs of farming material and equipment and reduced business feasibility.

The consumers’ cooperative movement was launched in the late 1980s to further the organic farming movement after agreeing upon product value through a direct transaction with consumers. At first, the movement was promoted by the devoted efforts of a few farmers and consumers through direct transactions. Since the 1990s, there have been repeated environmental and food safety-related accidents. The high demand for safe agricultural products meant that the ground for promoting the consumer cooperative movement was well established. In particular, when the South Korean government resumed imports of U.S. beef in 2008, candlelight vigils were held in protest. Since then, more consumers have turned to purchasing safe agricultural products from consumer cooperatives; thus, the consumer cooperative movement has achieved remarkable growth.4

Finally, in the last decade or so, some progressive consumers’ cooperatives attempted to propagate alternative agri-food movements that connect farmers with consumers through the local food movement and school food movement.5 However, currently, the consumers’ cooperatives in South Korea are at a critical juncture just as the organic farming movement is. Meanwhile, based on growing consumer interest in safe food, certain consumer cooperatives that attempted to secure a stable consumer market for a certain bracket (middle class or higher) are compelled to compete in that market.

Despite many difficulties, South Korea’s alternative agri-food movement shows the possibility of becoming a popular alternative movement in which both consumers and farmers participate through submovements like local food, school food, and public catering. The cooperation between consumers’ and farmers’ groups, and the search for an integrated alternative agri-food movement, have enabled them to overcome conventional limits. Among these movements, KWPA and Korean Peasants League (KPL) have been vital in promoting numerous activities with the goal of food sovereignty.

KWPA and Food Sovereignty

South Korea’s peasant movement was in the forefront of the 1980–1990 pro-democracy initiative. From the global perspective, it is known for its role in the movement against neoliberal globalization and World Trade Organization (WTO), especially the Cancun Struggle and the Hong Kong Resistance (the demonstrations against the WTO meetings in 2003 and 2005, respectively).

South Korea’s peasant movement was led by KWPA and KPL (both members of La Via Campesina, the international peasants’ movement). In particular, KWPA’s food sovereignty strategy shows significant progress in the search for an alternative agri-food movement.

KWPA was formed in 1989 with the goal of liberating women farmers from the patriarchal South Korean society and rural villages; it also sought to protect South Korean agriculture from U.S. pressure to open up the agricultural market and from inappropriate government policies. It is based on the women peasants’ movement that commenced with the pro-democracy movement during the 1980s. Since then, KWPA has opposed the agricultural free trade policy of the 1990s and the South Korean government’s decisions that adversely affect farmers’ interests. Since the turn of the century, KWPA has resisted neoliberal globalization and dealt with the immense pressure to open up the agricultural product market caused by WTO negotiations and the FTA regime. In addition, it has strengthened cooperation with consumers in the school food movement.

However, the South Korean government’s continued commitment to neoliberal free trade caused a decline in agriculture. Despite the long struggle and resistance, the peasants’ movement began to lose its drive and disappear from people’s consciousness. Thus, the KWPA realized the necessity for a further strategic initiative in addition to the resistance against the government’s unfavorable agricultural policy. Through the Cancun Struggle in 2003, KWPA joined La Via Campesina in 2004 and developed the concept of systematic food sovereignty. Since then, the KWPA has revitalized the peasants’ movement in a struggle for the “Realization of Food Sovereignty.” Recently, this movement has developed the characteristics of a popular alliance of consumers and farmers. The organization has focused on promotions such as the Native Seed Movement and Sisters Kitchen Garden. The Native Seed Movement, promoted nationally in 2007, advocated for protection and distribution of native seed species; these seeds were identified through local inspection, and harvested and distributed through a ”one-household-one-native-species” movement with a seed-gathering field. In addition, Manwon Happiness, a program in which citizens’s donations are used in cultivating native seeds, while the native seeds are returned to the citizens upon harvesting, has encouraged consumers to participate in the native seed movement. As part of the Sisters’ Kitchen Garden Project (Box Scheme Program) launched in 2009, fresh seasonal agricultural products are produced by the women farmers’ community in a sustainable manner and then delivered to consumers. KWPA continues to communicate with consumers and promotes a joint movement through education programs and hands-on activities.

Expansion of the Movement Through Collaboration

Recently, there has been considerable collaboration between the peasants’ and citizens’ movements regarding food issues. This has created favorable conditions for the expansion of the food sovereignty movement. A turning point was a set of victories in the 2010 local elections by candidates promising “free environment-friendly school food service.” This new policy drew full support from the public because of the food safety issues under the global agri-food system, and the social polarization after the South Korean government’s pursuance of a neoliberal economic policy.

South Korea’s alternative agri-food movement groups, including KWPA and KPL, have attempted to legalize the basic right to food, which is primarily based on food sovereignty. Such an action is similar to the international trend of systematic realization of food sovereignty, with an awareness of limitations in the concept of “food security.”

Food security is often stipulated as a policy goal independent of the process in which it is achieved.6 However, a more complex understanding of this concept would situate it in relation to the politicization of food security, in opposition to the neoliberal design on feeding the world through the market.7 Ironically, the goal of food security has been taken advantage of to support free agricultural product trade. In contrast, true food sovereignty includes the right to food and human rights, together with the means to secure food as well. The right to food and food sovereignty are inseparable from the rights to agricultural production and agricultural product resources and accessibility. According to the report on the right to food by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, this more complex understanding of food sovereignty is found in both right to food and food right legislation in five countries: Venezuela, Mali, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

For the alternative agri-food movement to legislate the shift of the food system with the goal of realizing food sovereignty in South Korea, there should be mutual consent regarding the concept of food sovereignty in order to transform it into a popular movement in which both farmers and consumers participate. Second, after recognizing the necessity of transforming the food system, significant effort is required in order to reach a social agreement on the realization of food sovereignty.8 Third, it is necessary to establish a specific guideline and implementation plan for agriculture and the food system, applicable to South Korean society from the perspective of comprehensive food sovereignty. For this, KWPA has been delineating a variety of success stories in outperforming modern agricultural food systems from the standpoint of fulfilling genuine food needs. Winning the food sovereignty award is a testament to their effort. After joining La Via Campesina, KWPA has been able to accelerate the food sovereignty movement in South Korea; it now campaigns for the food sovereignty movement on a global scale.


  1. For more information, see
  2. Phillip McMichael, “The World Food Crisis in Historical Perspective,” Monthly Review 61, no. 3 (July-August 2009): 32–47.
  3. The danger of asbestos from stone tiles caused traditional houses to become popular again.
  4. South Korea’s consumer cooperative movement has developed along with the organic farming movement. There are many consumer cooperatives that do not handle sugar or coffee just because they are not produced in Korea, as the former have developed in cooperation with South Korea’s farmers’ movements. Of course, there are consumer cooperatives that provide imported organic agricultural products as well.
  5. In South Korea, since 2000, there has been a movement to supply domestic agricultural products to schools first. Since the local election in 2010, numerous local governments have provided free school food services and worked hard to supply environment-friendly local food materials to schools first.
  6. Guide on Legislating for the Right to Food(Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2009).
  7. Saturnino M. Borras, Marc Edelman, and Cristóbal Kay, eds., Transnational Agrarian Movements Confronting Globalization (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).
  8. According to a questionnaire survey on food sovereignty among South Korean people, only 19.3 percent responded that they are aware of or understand food sovereignty.
2013, Volume 65, Issue 01 (May)
Comments are closed.