Against the grain

Rice on display in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Andrew Walker.
16 October 2012

Rice on display in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Andrew Walker.

 

The politics of farming are starkly different in South Korea and Thailand, but not in the way you might expect. ANDREW WALKER reports that the hyper-modern East Asian state is a lot more in touch with its rural identity than the largely agricultural Southeast Asian nation.

On a recent visit to South Korea, I was surprised to find a display of rice cultivation in the heart of Seoul. Arrayed along the middle of the city’s central Sejongno boulevard, almost in the shadow of the statue of Korean’s sixteenth century hero, Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, hundreds of pots of mature rice were laid out in an elaborate montage of rural productivity.

On a sign in the midst of the display the English text read: "It’s time to turn to farming. Farming is life. Farming is imbued with old wisdom that we may transfer to the future. Farming makes sustainable development possible. Farming is an art".

On the face of it, this is a typical example of rural nostalgia; of the yearning for more authentic agrarian ways that often characterises the triumph of modernity. The South Korean display of urban rice-art seemed very similar to the romanticisation and consumption of the rural that I have seen many times in Thailand, where I have been working since the early 1990s.

However, there is an important difference between Thailand and Korea when it comes to urban appreciation of rural ways of life. In South Korea, urban nostalgia for agriculture appears to be part of something approaching a national consensus about the importance of state support for the farming population. The South Korean government provides its farmers with one of the most generous packages of subsidy and support in the world: tariffs on agricultural imports, tariff rate quotas, direct payments to farmers, and heavy investment in rural development schemes. This government largesse attracts some criticism from commentators concerned about market distortion and government extravagance, but there does not seem to be any serious public debate about the legitimacy of this support for the rural sector. Funding for school lunches is a bigger issue in the up-coming presidential election.

In Thailand the situation is very different.

Elites in Thailand, encouraged by the home-spun agricultural theories of the king, often resort to unrealistic and outdated appeals to rural self-reliance. Since Thaksin Shinawatra’s controversial term as Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006, rural populism has become a deeply divisive political issue. In public debate, anti-Thaksin forces have regularly portrayed his government’s payments to farmers as undermining the moral fibre of the rural population, corrupting the electoral process, and undermining the self-reliance of local economies. The military coup which threw Thaksin out of office in 2006 derived legitimacy from the notion that his allocations to rural villages were tantamount to vote-buying. The generous rice price-support scheme introduced by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck following her election in July 2011, has sparked another round of debate about corruption, waste, and populist mismanagement. Despite its notoriously high levels of rural-urban inequality, diversion of the taxes paid by the middle- and upper-classes to the countryside remains deeply contentious in Thailand.

There are many possible explanations for this difference in political culture: Korea is much more affluent; Korean farmers have organised more assertively and effectively than farmers in Thailand; Korea is a food importer while Thailand is an exporter; peasant rebellion has an iconic position in Korean nationalism; and farmers in Korea benefit from positive Confucian attitudes to their occupation.

Much more important, however, is the structure of the Korean economy. In Korea, agriculture accounts for about eight per cent of the workforce. In Thailand it employs more than 40 per cent. Put simply, there are relatively few farmers in Korea and the country can afford to support them. In the national consciousness, farming is a small and vulnerable sector that needs careful protection.

But minority groups don’t always find themselves at the receiving end of government largesse. Why have farmers, a small minority in Korea, been so successful in shaping a national consensus while their counterparts in Thailand, who are the country’s largest single socio-economic group, still struggle to turn public opinion in their favour?

An important part of the answer lies in the pace of economic transformation in South Korea. The percentage of the workforce in agriculture has plummeted from around 50 per cent to only eight per cent in little more than a generation. There has been a massive, and very rapid, demographic shift out of villages into urban areas. The industrial and demographic transition in Thailand has been much slower. As a result, Korea’s ballooning middle class is, to a much greater extent than in Thailand, made up of people with direct familial links to rural areas: if their parents weren’t farmers, their grandparents probably were.

The ironic result is that in hyper-modern and heavily industrialised Korea, the personal and cultural linkages between urban and rural society are much closer, and considerably more informed, than they are in Thailand.

Dr Andrew Walker is Deputy Dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific and a senior fellow in the College’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies. Dr Walker’s research interests include environmental management, rural development, agricultural modernisation, borders and borderlands and politics in mainland Southeast Asia. He is also the co-founder of the blog New Mandala which provides anecdote, analysis and new perspectives on mainland Southeast Asia.

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