Beyond the screen of my open notebook, a tall window opens onto a sun-dappled courtyard. Bordering it stands an ancient stone wall coated in vines; in its center, shaded by the curved boughs of a mulberry tree, sits a table sporting a loaded cheeseboard, platters of cold meats, a brace of baguettes and a sweating bottle of rose.
The crunch of foot on stone, the chuckle of liquid into glass, the murmur of conversation and ― aha! Luncheon beckons.
As you may have guessed I pen this not from the concrete cell of my Seoul apartment, but from my parents’ farmhouse in the Vaucluse, Northern Provence. This is the finest area of France ― itself the most-visited tourist destination on earth. Amid the blessings of nature, history and table with which one is constantly wooed in this part of the world, my Korean wife has been cooing a great deal.
At what? The spectacular granite walls of the mighty Les Baux, the robber baron stronghold that looms over the valleys? No.
The fairytale medieval villages that fill one’s windscreen then recede in one’s rear-view mirror as one drives the gentle country roads meandering through the vineyards? Nope.
The green, reed-blown streams that bisect the stone streets of Ile Sur-la-Sorgue, the “Venice of Provence?” No again.
What caught the Old Duck’s eye amid these sights ― sights that have lured the brushes of such famed artists as Van Gogh and Gaugain ― and drew forth delighted gasps were prices in the local supermarket.
Obviously local produce like cheese and wine is far cheaper. But staples are no different: meat is one quarter its cost in Seoul, fruits one tenth. Even imported tropical fruits are far cheaper than in Korea. Why the hell are we paying so much for basic sustenance?
First, let’s thank decades of protectionist agricultural policy. This helped lift Korean farms from rural poverty but, in the era of free trade and global competition, is untenable.
Food prices in Korea are (depending upon ingredient) various multiples of world norms, but due to farmers’ bully pulpit ― after all, many family heads still reside in ancestral villages, granting them influential power ― this is ignored as a national political issue: While people curse food bills, farmers are beyond criticism.
In the 21st century, these disastrous policies don’t help farmers: there is an ever-decreasing farming population to protect. The sector, worth under 4 percent of GDP, is dying; in over a decade in Korea, I have never met a single person who wanted to become a farmer. Villages are denuded as urban drift continues.
And distribution is an utter disaster. My brother-in-law once offered me a freshly slaughtered cow for 1 million won (the farmer’s asking price). If said cow were butchered into sirloin-sized cuts and distributed around hanwoo restaurants nationwide, ending up on your plate at, say, 40,000 won per serving, its worth would be closer to $1 million.
So is the end of the countryside nigh? If it sticks to farming as its main industry, then the answer must be “yes.”
Though grandstanding politicians rally furiously in their cause, there is no long-term strategy to save local farmers from the onslaught of cheaper, tariff-free produce as more free trade agreements (FTAs) come into effect. And though this will continue as a political issue, I’m willing to bet that ― bar vociferous ultra-nationalists ― the average housewife will be relieved (if not overjoyed) to see food prices fall and variety arrive in supermarkets.
There will always be some competitive farms. And there will increasingly be boutique farmers offering niche and/or organic products. But for the average Farmer Kim: Is his land, his village and his way of life doomed?
Not necessarily. There are sectors other than farming that farming communities can enter ― with, perhaps, a little official assistance. Leisure, tourism and lifestyle products/services are examples; parts of Europe such as Provence, Tuscany and Southwest England are models.
A well-presented handicrafts, antiques or niche produce market once a week can lure thousands of high-spending visitors. Rural buildings ― that tumbledown Tuscan farmhouse or English thatched cottage ― can be renovated and put on the market for the city slicker or retiree. Hey presto ― a rural real estate industry is created. Alternatively, such buildings can be turned into family-run restaurants or hotels.
Of course, Korean cottage industries will need nurturing, for since Park Chung-hee tore down thatched roofs and replaced them with corrugated iron, aesthetics have been banished from the Korean countryside.
Farmers’ markets in Korea are rough-and-ready places: They may boast quality produce, but have little idea about presentation. Rural restaurants, even good ones, tend to offer same-same interiors and similar menus. Hanok are considered undesirable, but a restoration and interior design industry can add value. Realtors, whose business has been based on selling apartments as investment destinations rather than attractive homes, will need to learn the marketing and presentation nous seen in France or the U.K.
This means plentiful potential for creative ideation. I’d like to see local politicians junketing in Tuscany and Provence. I’d like to see Korean realty and restaurant consultants benchmarking Europe. I’d like to see national and provincial “most beautiful village” campaigns instituted to put aesthetics back on the rural agenda.
Rural Korea need not be an economic black hole. Its geography is highly attractive; with a bit of spit-and-polish, the countryside can reinvent itself, if not in whole, then certainly in part.
The Saemaul Undong (New Community Movement) lifted rural Koreans from poverty ― a tremendous achievement. That day has passed. The countryside is in trouble again. I’d suggest that the movement should be reinvented ― with the creation of a family/community-based rural tourism, leisure, lifestyle and culture-based sector as its aim.
Now, if you will excuse me, I am off to sample some of the delights of exactly that.
Andrew Salmon, a Seoul-based journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.