Korean Farmers: The Value of Local Knowledge

In October, the ISC had the opportunity to meet with Korean farmers. We were welcomed into homes, fed fresh food and were given tours of both rural and urban farmland. Our hosts told us their stories and shared some of the struggles that Korean farmers are facing. It’s a side of Korea that is often shadowed by the country’s growing economic progress. This raises important questions about what and who is valued within societies: who is given support?  Whose knowledge is considered valid?

Today Korea is known globally for its multinational tech companies, like Samsung and LG, but not long ago it was a country that survived almost solely on farming. In 1970, fifty percent of Koreans were farmers. It’s safe to assume that farming was a significant part of Korean identity and culture during that time.

The Korean War, food aid from the US, neoliberal policies and bilateral agreements led to the decline of farming in Korea, and the decline of rural communities and their indigenous traditions and cultures. The Korean government implemented The Green Revolution in the 1970s in response to economic pressures from the US. This ‘revolution’ stripped farmers of their right to land, seeds and farming methods. Farmers traded their traditions and small family farms for fertilizers and heavy machinery. The cost of these new technologies pushed farmers to grow cash crops to survive. Many farming communities were destroyed as the government focused its energy on increasing production and maximizing profit.

Near the end of the 1980s the government had directed most of its resources into neoliberal free trade policies and manufacturing.  Korea’s large population and their lack of land led to less support for domestic farming. The Korean government discredited and devalued its farming communities and left them vulnerable to global markets where they stood no chance of competing. By 2010, farming in Korea had dramatically decreased to 7 percent of the population.

Life as a farmer is inherently unpredictable. Weather, bugs, disease and seeds are just some of factors that can affect harvests.  Farmers have to be resourceful and resilient to survive. The political and economic forces they are up against are much bigger than the pests that eat their plants. Korean farmers are working hard to preserve their local knowledge and are using it as a powerful weapon against neoliberal driven policies.

Korean farmers are resisting the decline in local farming. The Korean Peasants League (KPL) and The Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA) are fighting against neoliberal free trade agreements and are in solidarity with farmers around the world. They are initiating back to the land movements and are sharing their indigenous knowledge and traditions. They are reviving rural communities and are creating a new collective conscience within Korea. They are giving power and control back to the people. This has resulted in better tasting food and happier, healthier communities.

KWPA is helping empower women farmers; they are protecting indigenous seeds and building relationships with local consumers. Older women farmers are sharing their knowledge with the younger farming generation. The older generation is not educated in the way modern society appreciates. “Most of them are illiterate, but experts of indigenous agriculture” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p. 2). Their deep connection to the land is vital to the future of local, traditional farming methods. The KWPA is a progressive movement that recognizes the importance of the past. “The young generation makes it possible to reconsider the role and value of women peasants, who had been undervalued and excluded from the capitalized market economy system in the process of modernization” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p.3). The older generation of women farmers place in society and their knowledge is undervalued by Korean society. The KWPA is building a space where women peasants’ value can be realized and their knowledge can be used to improve the future of local communities.

The KWPA’s Sister’s Garden Plot slogan is, “An honest producer and a caring consumer: Together we can solve the problem”. Their pamphlet states that, “As consumers increase, rather than increase the scale of production, it is better to create a larger community in which producers and consumers meet.” They focus on local, seasonal farming – which is less costly – and better for the environment. The food they grow goes directly back to the community. Their freedom to grow food sustainably is attained by meeting the demands of their local market, not those of the global market.

Capitalism is limited; it only has the capacity to measure profit. Under modern capitalism, everything is disposable and replaceable. It’s unable to give value and meaning to the natural world we live in. Economic competition disrupts the simple cycle of growing, harvesting and producing food. Massive companies are protected by conflicting laws and trade agreements that limit access to local food and discourage localized, sustainable farming. Instead of power residing with farmers, it is hoarded by corporations. Food grown for mass profit is impossible to be grown ethically and in accordance with the natural environment. Food for profit is illogical and irrational. It causes farmers and communities worldwide to suffer, while big companies thrive.

We already have all of the tools needed to create more sustainable food sources. We have the farmers and their knowledge, but what we need is a structural shift within society that supports and encourages local farmers. Cooperative communities need to be valued over the convenience and the perceived choices capitalism offers. People need to look beyond their plates and see the damage caused by our current path. We need to stop giving credibility to multinational corporations and the governments who support them.

The battle facing farmers in Korea isn’t just a localized issue- it’s a global one. It is a collective struggle that affects all of us. Korean farmers have many roles. They are teachers, activists and protectors of their land and culture. Farmers, more than anyone, are aware of the grave dangers facing our plant. Farmers are a vital part of societies and their voices need to not just be heard, but truly listened to and valued.

Hyo Jeong Kim. (2013, September 14-15) Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Food Sovereignty: Experiences from KWPA’s Movement in South Korea. Paper presented at Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue, International Conference, Yale University (1-19).

Learning to Live with Purpose

A few months ago the ISC met in Seoul to learn about reunification. We met with reunification activist and former political prisoner, Kwon Nak Gi. At the age of 26, he was imprisoned for breaking the National Security Law in Korea. He spent 18 years of his life in jail, from 1972 to 1989. Trying to relate to a man whose world differed so much from my own was difficult. It raised important questions and forced me to reflect on how I have been living my life thus far.

I have always been interested in social issues. This led me to pursue a degree in political science at university. While I liked the idea of social justice, my understanding of politics at the time didn’t go much past the pages of the classroom textbooks.

Yet the past two years I’ve spent in Korea have made me increasingly aware of the role politics plays in the life of everyday people. As I have become more familiar with the Korean social movement, activists and politicians, I have realized that awareness and change stem not from inconsistent ideals but from the lives of dedicated individuals. All of the people I’ve  met have had at least one thing in common: they are all distinctly aware of their purpose. They have sacrificed comfortable, stable jobs and are devoting their lives to improving their community. The big question is, how? How did they discover and find the strength to live each day with purpose?

Kwon Nak Gi’s experiences in prison left him with nothing but his purpose. They took away his clothes, possessions, his home, family, country, and physical freedom. In the eyes of his oppressors, they had successfully dehumanized him. Solitary confinement was supposed to dissolve his beliefs, but it only strengthened them. After hearing his story, it was evident that the thing that makes us human is not superficial, but something that lies deep within us.

Kwon Nak Gi told us that he found strength in three basic ways; everyday resistance to his conditions, studying, and through comradery with his fellow prisoners. It was these basic intentions, along with his unwavering commitment and internal strength, that helped him endure life in prison. A simple confession could have given him the freedom to return to his family. Yet he firmly believed that a life without meaning would be much worse than a life behind bars. While most people reading this will hopefully never have to face what he did, his story is an important lesson on how to live an honest and meaningful life in spite of your conditions.

He started by telling us about how he was always actively struggling, whether he was physically resisting torture or internally resisting confession. Each time he was tortured, his reasons for resisting were reinforced. Each time he refused to denounce his beliefs, he further solidified his commitment to them. Struggle doesn’t always come in the form of organized protests and clear agendas. People make the struggle a part of their everyday lives. While in prison, Kwon and the other prisoners never forgot their reason for fighting.

Education and learning proved to be another important tool for resistance. Prisoners had limited resources and were not allowed to have books. Books were seen as a pleasurable distraction and were thus banned. Within the limits of their prison cells the prisoners, made up of political thinkers, students and professors, worked together to share their knowledge. Kwon told us this as he tapped his finger on the table. He explained that the prisoners transcribed books to one another using morose code. “If you didn’t do the studying and keep the spirit inside, you couldn’t last the whole prison term,” he reflected. Opening the mind and broadening one’s perspective is crucial. Learning and teaching in any form gives substance to life and in this case, made life in prison more tolerable. It gave space for the growth and change needed to continue participating in their struggle while imprisoned.

The third way that Kwon Nak Gi found strength was through comradeship with his fellow prisoners. Because of the bond between prisoners, he was never fighting alone. He told us that “animals can’t resist oppression, but human beings can fight oppression together, so in prison we struggled together.” The prisoners would find ways to help one another, however small, such as making sure to take care of the elderly and sick prisoners. The weight and power of oppression is too much for a single person to carry on their own, but with the help of a strong community, solidarity quickly forms.

Kwon Nak Gi has taught me that to fight for your beliefs is not enough. You have to become them, living each moment with intention. In unsettling times, when everything could be taken from you in an instant, the only thing that you have is not outside of yourself – it is within. Kwon Nak Gi was tortured for 25 years yet, he sat in front of us smiling as he recounted the years of his life spent he spent in prison. He was always free because from behind the bars of his cell he was committed to living each day with a purpose, moving forward and resisting. His time was never wasted because he utilized what he had – the struggle, his mind, and his compassion for his fellow prisoners – to separate himself from the oppression and fight against it.

On the surface, his story may evoke feelings of pity. He sacrificed years of his life struggling for the reunification of a country that remains divided. But after listening to him speaks, I instead felt hopeful. If a single man can endure so much loss and sacrifice for 18 years of his life while still firmly holding on to his beliefs, then just imagine the implications that has for a nation.

Kwon Nak Gi’s words and experiences contain an important message. On a personal level, he helped me understand that it is not about finding your purpose. Rather, it is about striving to constantly remain aware of and live by your purpose, especially in the moments when it feels like there is nothing left for which to fight. As he poignantly stated near the end of our meeting, “people need to never forget their reason to exist.”

May 18: Truth from within Solidarity

solidarity stories

by Erica Sweett

The atrocities that ravage countries are pushed into the shadows of history by those who are threatened by the weight of its truth. In the late 1970s Korea was very different. The country was still under military dictatorship. Citizens fought tirelessly for their basic rights. The assassination of President Park Chung Hee on October 26th 1979 sparked unrest across the country. Army general Chun Doo Hwan quickly replaced Park. In an attempt to divide and weaken the unified voices of the people he executed martial law. In response, students and citizens rose up in protest.

Pro-democracy demonstrations spread across the country. The May 18th History Compilation Committee of Gwangju recounts that, “By that time Gwangju had already shown itself to be the center of the fiercest demonstrations…” [1]. The strength of the movement in Gwangju posed a serious threat to the Chun Doo Hwan regime. Operation Choongjung…

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A Reflection on Community Education

solidarity stories

by Erica Sweett

Coming to Korea 1.5 years ago, I could never have imagined how much this country and its people could teach me. For me, education is about discovery. It is a shared knowledge that opens your mind to worlds beyond your own. Instead of passively learning about the culture and history of where we are living, we become active members of retelling and reshaping the future.
In March I was invited to see a play about three women who worked in the Korean garment factories during the 1970s. The women read their stories alongside actors who reenacted the scenes. Choking back tears, they spoke of the inhumane treatment, humiliation and violence they endured in the factories.

The Korea these women spoke of was not only of a different time, but of a completely different world. Their stories allowed me to see, from a personal perspective, the struggles many…

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No Connections are Available

Living abroad has made me more aware of how intertwined the social and technological aspects of my life have become. People can connect with anyone, anywhere via the World Wide Web. I can communicate with my family and share videos and pictures from the other side of the world. The benefits of this new tech age are endless.

The world we live in online is easy to access. We swipe swiftly through photos, texts and e-mails. Colorful images, videos and words from friends only hold our attention for seconds.

Technology creates two realities. People can be social and share, in a withdrawn way. They can ‘chat’ and converse, without any of the emotion found in a face to face conversation. Technology tricks us into thinking we can live in both realities at the same time. Every time we click through our smart phones, we are pulled out of the moment. Our mind and body divide.

I worry about how my attachment to this alternate world shapes my experiences, actions and memories. Would I be happier if I focused on the subtle face to face interactions and not the impersonal ones I encounter on facebook or Instagram?

Technology consumes us. Instead of being a powerful tool to empower and enrich our lives, it has become our lives. I’ve seen sunsets where every person was viewing the sun through the screen of their cell phone. In our need to upload we check out and disconnect from nature and ourselves. Our world has become so fast pace that we share our memories and moments while we are still experiencing them.

I want to reclaim the simplicity, silence and purposefulness that technology takes away. Living in the now, is something that I need desperately to work on. The one place where I am free from the TVs, smart phones, computers and flashing lights is the swimming pool. Underwater I am alone, with just my thoughts and my breath.

Find something that reconnects you. Go for a walk, do what makes you feel good. Make time for the people who are important to you. Be present and don’t let technology divide you. Savor the journey and the spontaneity of life.

Genuine experiences ground you. When you encounter and meet new people your personality will reflect in your stories. People will gain a deeper insight into the person you are, not through your photos, status updates or texts, but through spending time with you.

In moderation technology can teach and inspire, but don’t let it define you.

E. Sweett

Succeeding to Fail

Often in life we set limits for ourselves. I have grand ideas of the life I want, but no drive or confidence to pursue any of them. Why? I am terrified of being wrong and ultimately of failing. I sabotage my own success. People can’t criticize you if you beat them to it. There is no failure if you’re not fully committed.

For as long as I can remember I have felt a sense of urgency. At times this urgency has caused me to sacrifice what I really love; in order to do what I thought was expected of me. The older I get the harder it is to ignore. It’s the pressure from family, friends and society to get a practical, good paying job, so that I can have a comfortable life. But is it all worth it, if I have to sacrifice parts of my happiness and creativity to attain it? Everyone wants happiness from life. Success in my culture is based on superficial criteria. It’s a check list of requirements that cause more stress than joy. It’s impossible for everyone to live up to one ideal and not everyone wants to.

As soon as we enter school our creativity is challenged. We passively receive information and our achievements are based on a letter from F to A. It’s engrained in us from a young age to fear failure and to reach for a kind of success that is limited.

To be creative you need to find your passion and lose yourself in it. You need to be completely vulnerable. This is terrifying, because the things you create are reflections of yourself. You need to fully commit to your choices, for better or for worse. It’s easy to consume the creations of others. I’ve spent countless hours reading books, blogs, watching, films and while this can lead to inspiration – it can also lead to inaction. It takes a considerable amount of perseverance to infuse passion into your everyday life. One negative comment or doubt can set you back or cause you to quit.

Failing gives you strength. You learn what you are capable of and what you’re not. Challenge yourself to do what scares you, maybe you’ll surprise yourself and succeed or you’ll achieve the next best thing, and fail. Don’t just commit to your successes, own your failures too!

In an attempt to face my own fear of failure and to add some more passion and creativity into my life I am challenging myself to create something (anything) every day for one month and will document it on this blog.


Kimchi Connoisseur

Getting Kimchi Jjigae wit it!
uh uh uh
on your mark ready set lets go
Not to Taiwan or Tokyo, I know you know
I go crazy when the hunger hit
just cant sit.
Gotta get Kimchi jigae with it.

My favorite Korean food of All TIME.
Short video featuring Mr Will Smith, Summertime hikes, Ajumas dancing and the star of the show kimchi.
So good it ferments in my mouth!
Happy Friday.

** ** Kimchi is like the ketchup of Korea. It’s served with every meal. It’s basically fermented cabbage, but there are many varieties. Every Korean family has their own brand of Kimchi and they are all wonderful and different!

Warm Glow

On Saturday I woke up early, went for a swim and met up with some friends in Busan. It was a grey rainy day, but I decided to embrace it and went for a walk along the beach. 

The dark sky and cool wet air made the glow from the apartment windows warm and inviting.  The warm lights that radiate from shop windows and restaurants on rainy days, remind me of my childhood.  The rain always triggers feelings of comfort, being loved and of belonging to a place. Things you only feel when you’re home. Being happy and content with your life comes easy when you’re a child and it’s all you know.  Eventually you realize that you have to create the comforts of home for yourself.

Teaching English in South Korea has been life changing for me. I’ve met people from all over the world, and have gained more confidence in myself. However, the lifestyle of an English teacher in Asia is not a grounded one. You make close friends who will leave your life just as quickly as they entered it. Your job is never really stable. You are always moving, meeting new people and adjusting to new circumstances. Language barriers and cultural differences can confine you to a bubble. The lifestyle can be unsettling and for me this is what keeps Korea from feeling like home. 

Travel has given me many things, it’s also forced me to let go of a lot. Geographically speaking my home and my family are in Canada, but after a recent trip, I realized my home was not where I’d left it. There were subtle differences. It felt like everything had shifted. Friends moved away, my grandparents sold their house and my sister had just left for university. Suddenly the place I’d known my whole life wasn’t as familiar to me as it had been in the past. I thought being in the place where my family lives and where I’ve lived my whole life would instantly ground me and comfort the restlessness that traveling conjures.  Being home had left me lingering in a limbo. I was more lost and confused than I had ever been.

I’ve since come to appreciate that being lost is a part of the journey. I’m slowly starting to build my own life and at times that can leave me scared and alone. I believe that stability and a sense of home comes with knowing yourself and accepting your life as it is.  All I can do is take each moment life gives me and hope that it leads me, not to a new home but rather, to a new version of a home that is my own.   

Sincerely ,

Erica Sweett.

Mystery in the Mundane

Sometimes I forget that I don’t lead a typical life. About a year and a half ago I moved from Canada to South Korea to teach English. I was placed in a small town called, Jangyu. It’s rough around the edges and from those on the outside looking in, it’s nothing special. It is often in the unassuming places in my life where I find the most inspiration, perhaps it’s because I’m forced to dig deeper.

Jangyu is not the most beautiful place in Korea. Nestled in-between hills and mountains’ are rows of colorless high rises. Construction is found on every corner. The sounds of bulldozers, heavy machines and clinking metal echo through the streets.  The old is rapidly being transformed into foundations for the new.

As a foreigner I find mystery in everyday life here. Jangyu, like many small towns in Korea, is filled with buildings and people that give you a glimpse into its past.  Mystery is found in traditional markets and in the wrinkled faces of old ladies selling vegetables on street corners. Hidden behind high-rises, down back streets and on mountain tops are remains of an older, much slower, simpler Korea.

I went on a walk last Sunday with one of my good friends.  We made the short trip from my apartment down the street to an unfamiliar area that, despite living in the town for more than a year, I had never been to. What we found were warehouses, piles of metal and other scraps of machinery scattered alongside the road. We also discovered several large discarded wooden structures. It was an eerily quiet day and time seemed to move slower as we climbed the structures and enjoyed taking guesses at what we thought they might be. As we wandered further up the street we followed a small river to a persimmon farm. The rows of bare trees  covered the hill-side like hands reaching out of the ground towards the sky.

It is in these simple moments in life where I am the most happy. Maybe it’s the gratification of feeling like I’ve discovered something hidden. Exploring gives me a sense of accomplishment.  I had the insight and the inititive to wonder and to give meaning to what may have been forgotten or lost.

We are living in a world of 99.9 percent probabilities. This leaves little room for discovery and exploration. Fragments of the past are often found when you are not looking for them. A places true beauty is only uncovered when you lose yourself in the unknown.

Travel, even if it’s only down your street. Force yourself to find the mystery in the mundane. Explore the familiar and uncover the beauty that surrounds you.


Erica Sweett.