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My project on informal life politics in South Korea aims to expand our understanding of Korean politics from a narrow focus on the formal actions of government to a broader vision of people’s diverse collective efforts to improve their lives in ways that are not necessarily visible to the eyes of the state. Democratic participation is one way that people can achieve local autonomy, even in a country like South Korea where political and economic power is so centralised.
I am also motivated by my own Korean background to explore alternative social movements. Following events like the tragic sinking of the Sewol Ferry 2014, signs of dysfunctional government have encouraged people to look to informal life politics based on communal self-help as a way of creating an alternative polity of communal space, where people can solve the issues of livelihood by themselves.
Organic farming, which is widely practiced by contemporary community-based movements in South Korea, offers vivid examples of informal life politics. This form of agriculture is more suitable for small-scale farming than for large-scale and industrialised farming, and the production and distribution of organic produce can create a communal space with reciprocal relationships among people. Through my study of the history and present situation of the organic farming movement, I highlight the significant role of communal space in South Korea’s social movements.
My research started with Chŏngnonghoe, the first organic farming movement group in Korea, created in 1976 by Protestant farmers. Chŏngnonghoe is still active today, but has attracted little attention because of its small size, its religious character and the dearth of written sources on its story. In-depth interviews with older members and the discovery of old newsletters led me to realise the depth and international connections of the movement’s origins. This organic farming movement inherited the traditions of the rural development movement which emerged in colonial Korea during the 1920s, created by Christian nationalists. The 1920s movement was established by a transnational network linking Christian farmers in Korea and Japan, who drew on the Danish model of rural development as their shared ideal of communal farming, as opposed to chemical farming driven by the state development plans.
My second case study is the Hansalim Movement: the first organic consumer cooperative in Korea, which was founded in 1986, and helped to make organic farming a nationwide movement. Hansalim is now the largest organic consumer coop (in terms of number of members) and is one of numerous South Korean consumer cooperatives selling organic produce, but there is a clear distinction between Hansalim and the others: other organic cooperatives largely reflect consumer interests, but Hansalim emphasises the connection between consumers and farmers, and the role of organised consumers in supporting organic farming. This distinctive approach reflects the movement’s origins in 1970s rural reconstruction initiatives in the Wonju area of Korea: initiatives which were led by prominent Catholics and local intellectuals. They developed a ‘Life Philosophy’ (Saengmyongsasang) inspired by Christianity and the indigenous ideals of Tonghak (Eastern Learning). This philosophical basis has ensured that Hansalim has remained a social movement rather than becoming a commercial enterprise. Communal autonomy is reiterated in Hansalim as it is in Chŏngnonghoe. The movement shows us how people can use a communal space to overcome the competitive relationship between farmers and consumers.
The past and present of the organic farming movement in South Korea reveal a tradition of community-based social movements which create a space autonomous from the state politics and the capitalist society. I hope this project can encourage a rethinking of community as a space to overcome the isolation experienced by so many citizens / consumers in contemporary society.