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Suicide highlights Korean farm problems

(Monday, Sept. 22, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Sang-Hun Choe, Associated Press, 09/18/03: SEOUL, South Korea - When Lee Kyung-hae, fresh out of college, returned to his rural hometown to become a farmer in 1975, the seeds of the economic upheaval that eventually led to his suicide were already taking root.

South Korea, once a predominantly agrarian country, had just begun its rapid industrialization. The brightest among its young people joined Samsung, Hyundai and other big companies that built cars, oil tankers and computer chips for exports.

While the country's manufacturers benefited from global trade, Lee grew despondent as cheap farm imports flooded in, prices plummeted and debts snowballed.

Last week, Lee's self-styled campaign to defend Korean farmers from free trade came to a dramatic end when he stuck a knife into his heart during a protest outside a World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, Mexico. He shouted "WTO kills farmers!" as he committed suicide.

Lee's desperate act shocked South Koreans and dramatized the plight of its debt-ridden farmers, who are struggling to maintain their centuries-old agrarian tradition while the world's 12th largest economy finds its farm sector increasingly indefensible against global demand for free trade.

On Thursday, 600 black-clad farmers gathered in rain at an airport outside Seoul to receive Lee's body as it returned from Mexico. They draped his coffin with a national flag and called him a martyr. Lee's sobbing daughter Jie-hye said her father "died to keep the Korean farm industry alive."

"Mr. Lee killed himself to show that Korean farmers are on the brink of a cliff," said Suh Jong-eui, chairman of the Korean Advanced Farmers Federation, a farmers' lobby that Lee had once headed.

Soon after Lee's death, the 146-nation meeting in Cancun collapsed over differences between developing countries and rich nations over how to open agricultural markets.

South Korea resisted the opening of agricultural markets as sought by some developing countries, but at the same time the government admits that liberalization is probably inevitable.

The government protects its farmers by imposing tariffs of 100 percent or on imports of 142 farm products. It imposes a virtual ban on rice imports and buys huge stocks of rice domestically at high prices. As a result, a South Korean consumer pays four times more for rice than the average U.S. consumer does.

Still, things are changing. To keep overseas markets open for its economy, South Korea slowly began to reduce the subsidies and started opening the doors on food imports in the late 1980s.

In response, farmers, usually the most docile segment of Korean society, began taking to the streets even as their numbers dwindled. In this country of 47 million people, there are only 3.6 million farmers compared to 6.6 million 12 years ago.

"I wonder more than a dozen times a day whether it is possible to be a farmer in South Korea any longer," said Ham Jung-hwan, a 30-year-old student at Korean National Agriculture College. "Many classmates are leaving school before graduation."

In South Korea, the farm industry - especially rice, which accounts for 52 percent of production - has always been more than food or a trade issue. Rice is so enmeshed with Korean culture that a common greeting is, "Have you eaten cooked rice yet?"

"Bap" is both the Korean word for "cooked rice" and for "meal." Ask Korean children what they see in the moon, and they will likely say they see rabbits pounding rice in a mortar - a scene from a popular folk tale.

The concept of "grain security" - self-sufficiency in growing rice and other foodstuffs - has a strong pull among Koreans.

Growing rice the traditional way is labor-intensive and requires farmers to live in villages where they pool their labor. This emphasis on group interests and harmony resonates in Asian culture, and still characterizes the lifestyle at glass and steel worksites in modern South Korea.

In a letter to the WTO in March, Lee lamented that waves of market opening were destroying "our lovely rural communities," driving farmers into city slums and turning rural areas into ghost villages where "pig pens are empty and only immobile old people live."

Lee was once a star farmer. His experimental 44-acre farm, 12 times the average plot for Korean farmers, attracted farming students who wanted to learn how to yield more with less cost and survive with declining prices. Lee was elected to the provincial legislature, and his farm was once featured on national television.

But Lee's fortunes eventually declined, and a bank foreclosed on his farm because of an unpaid mortgage a few years ago.

In 1990, Lee stabbed himself in the stomach with a Swiss army knife in the lobby of the WTO headquarters in Geneva. Lee spent a month earlier this year camped out in front of the WTO's headquarters, holding signs that said the trade organizations were killing farmers.

After his death, relatives found his handwritten note: "It's more worthwhile to sacrifice one man for 10 people than ten people for one man."

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A27771-2003Sep18.html