Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Korea emerged as a developed country in both economic and political terms. By the early 1990s, its acceptance into the OECD had been agreed and democratically elected governments were bringing their authoritarian predecessors to account for past abuses of power. In 1970, the agricultural sector was still employing almost half the labour force, but by the 1990s farmers had become a small, though not necessarily thereby powerless, interest group within the economy. Within these two decades, therefore, the process of agricultural adjustment was taking place, in the context of the transformation of a bureaucratic developmental state of the highest order into a pluralist democracy.
The story of this process exhibits in some respects the universal characteristics of agricultural adjustment in an industrial economy. As consumers spent larger proportions of their growing incomes on non-agricultural goods and industrial productivity growth caused comparative advantage to shift away from agriculture, the maintenance of rural incomes came to depend increasingly on intervention to raise prices. Given the remarkably rapid transformation of the economy, levels of protection and support for agriculture rose at exceptional rates to rival those of Japan, while dependence on imports at the same time increased significantly. In other respects, Korea’s agricultural adjustment followed the ‘East Asian’ pattern, with the small-scale rice cultivator continuing to play the dominant role in the agricultural structure. Yet it was also conditioned by features peculiar to Korea, as regards the initial conditions from which it began, the particular nature of Korean industrialisation and Korea’s insecure situation in the world. This chapter will trace the interactions between these forces, as Korean farmers and agricultural policy-makers sought to define and develop a role for agriculture within Korea’s industrial economy.