Economic Crisis in Korea Pushes Many Into Farming

The end of rapid industrialization leads to a boom in new farms. This back-to-the-land movement has roots in nation's Buddhism.

Lee Noh Kee has escaped to what she calls her little heaven on earth. Amid lush hills and clear streams, her farmhouse overlooks a grazing cow, a pen of pigs, and fields of vegetables.

This rosy image of Korea - "the land of morning calm" - hardly fits with the industrial world that spills from South Korean cities. But as the "tiger" economy's crisis deepens, farming has emerged as an alternative for those disillusioned with industrial society and as an opportunity for legions of newly unemployed.

Farming is not always an easy life, but Mrs. Lee never much liked the modern world spun from conglomerates. As a school- teacher, she had hoped to inspire a more ecologically oriented future, but was slowly disillusioned. Although her escape to the farm was long coming, last winter's onset of the economic crisis prompted many others to head for the land this spring.

Last year, just 1,823 families took up farming. In the first two-thirds of 1998, 4,914 have started new farms, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Neither Lee or her husband had any farming experience when they came to North Chungchung Province nine months ago. They put their life savings into equipment. Learning to work the land has been tough, and Lee sometimes feels herself isolated with just her husband and five-year-old son. Severe flooding this summer made the transition doubly hard. But Lee has few regrets. "It's so peaceful and such a relief from complicated city life. It really feels like I'm living," she says thoughtfully.

With no hired help and no ambitions to profit, Lee's goal is simple self-sufficiency. A loose network of neighbors who also abandoned the city helps. "Working to produce your own food, what you need, so you can take complete care of yourself has been the most gratifying thing. The goal is just being able to feed ourselves," says Lee in a telephone interview. Like others who got back to the land, she has little time for city visitors and keeps conversations short.

The "back to the land movement" began a couple years ago at the peak of South Korea's economic development and has roots in environmentalism and Buddhist philosophy.

People felt alienated from de-spiritualized modern life, says Kim Seung Soo, a professor of agriculture at Seoul National University. "It reflects something most of us have felt at one time or another," he says.

A coordinator at The Buddhist Back to the Farm School in Seoul, Yoon Jong Sang is more blunt: "This society is in a constant state of war. Winning against somebody is the motive for people. Too many lose out. Development kills nature for human benefit. That eventually turns around and kills humans," he says.

Since 1996, Mr. Yoon has been teaching people to dye their own clothes, sew, raise animals, and farm organically. He waxes poetic about washing and drinking from a stream. "Water in the city you have to buy," he says.

South Korea has little arable land to cultivate for its 45 million people and land has steadily been going out of production as a once mostly rural population goes urban. The country has tried various plans to insure food security. Like Japan, it once tried buying land in South America for ethnic Koreans to farm, provided they sold the crops to the fatherland. More recently, officials have considered importing farm workers from Southeast Asia as they already do for the "dirty, dangerous, and difficult" factory jobs shunned by Koreans.

Whether subsistence farming is the tip of an iceberg or an emerging counterculture generation is hard to say. In any case, the movement has received a boost from the ailing economy. The National Agricultural Cooperative has begun to train hundreds of newly unemployed laborers. But many of these new farmers see farming as just another form of labor for pay and may not have the commitment it takes to make it in the countryside.

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