The final blow to the ailing Korean economy in 1980 was the most disastrous harvest since the Korean war. An unusually cold summer slashed the normal rice harvest from 5.5 million to 4 million metric tons, forcing the government to spend an extra $1 billion on make-up food grain imports.
"We were very late in developing new, cold-resistant rice seedlings. in addition, farmers in recent years have been relying heavily on chemical fertilizers rather than manure, leading to a serious deterioration in soil fertility," explained Chung Jong Tenk, minister of agriculture and fisheries.
The bad summer was a serious blow to a country whose geographical location and climatic conditions only permit one crop a year.
Economists reackon that a rice crop failure contributed at least 2 and possibly 3 percent to the record decline in the gross national product in 1980.
This year, the emphasis naturally will be on trying to repair the damage. If nature cooperates, a normal rice crop of 5.5 million tons is expected, along with 2 million tons of barley and other grains.
But the Ministry of Agriculture planned to import at least half a million tons of American rice to build up stockpiles and as a measure to prevent domestic rice rices from soaring.
On a long-term basis, Mr. Chung expects Korea will continue to import at least 1 million tons annually of wheat, corn, and soybeans in which the country, for a variety of reasons, is not expected to ever achieve self-sufficiency.
All those imports now come from the United States -- Korea normally being the eighth biggest customer for American farm products, and last year rising to fifth place.
But there is external pressure to diversify.
"Other grain exporting countries, like Canada for instance, have been filing complaints through diplomatic channels against our heavy reliance on the US," the minister revealed, indicating, however, that there was little chance of any drastic change in Korean buying patterns.
What the Seoul government is more interested in is long-term grain production projects overseas with Korean capital and even labor. One idea, for instance, is to encourage Koren emigration to parts of South America where there is unused potential farmland available for development.
MR. Chung cited as an example a Venezuelan delta area development plan in which he thought Korean technology could be of some help. He visited the region in January 1981,
Within very real limitations, the effort also continues at home to make better use of the available land.
Basically, Korea's mountainous structure reduces arable land to a maximum 22 percent. A program is now under way to develop grasslands in the mountains for development of a livestock industry. There are also efforts to utilize tidal land for agriculture.
Another problem is the slow diminution of the agricultural work force as Korea's rapid urbanization and industrialization makes farming a less attractive proposition for
the farm labor force has shrunk from about 60 percent of the population in the mid- 1960s to around 30 percent today. Mechanization is part of the answer, and the government this year has budgeted some $220 million to supply a total of 177,000 harvesters, cultivators, and other machinery to the agricultural sector.
Combined with this is a program to consolidate land into larger, more efficient units than the traditional small family rice paddies: in other words, a move into modern commercial farming. For this, governmet sources predict an early abolition of the present farmland ownership system limiting each family to three hectares.
Overall, however, the government knows it has to make farming more attractive to young people to rival the attractions of the higher wages being offered by the emerging heavy industries.
Mr. Chung admitted that funds were not being set aside to support those youngsters willing to maintain the farm operations of their fathers in the future.
THis will include developing small local industries where farmers can work when not in the fields so as to boost their income to levels similar with city dwellers.
Considering the above factors, some argue that this is not the time to be thinking about phasing out the foodstuffs price support programs maintained by the government, despite the heavy burden on national finances.
By buying at a high price from farmers and selling at a lower one to consumers, the government last year incurred an estimated $100 million deficit on rice alone.
The challenge for government economic planners from now on is to find a system that will contribute to national financial stability while still giving farmers a strong incentive to stay on the land.
Experts point out that Korea's current agricultural productivity is much lower than, say, Japan or Taiwan, which is one reason domestic foodstuffs costs are two to five times higher than average international market prices.