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Republic of Korea (South Korea) is one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Its GDP per capita was $39,400 in 2017, as against North Korea where GDP per capita was mere $1700. Much of this difference can be attributed to the different political economy approaches pursued by the new nation-states as the peninsula was divided into two. The South created a liberal democracy with capitalist economic system, whereas the North created a social democracy with socialist economic system.
A fundamental component of South’s liberal democracy was the Land Reforms program undertaken in the early 1950s, which laid the basis for economic equality for a democratic society. South Korea’s land reform is much celebrated worldwide for being one of the few successful examples where land reform were done through the Parliament and ownership was actually given to the tiller, unlike many other cases where the state became the new landowner. It was touted as laying the foundation for a democratic egalitarian society. But as South Korea saw unequal opportunities – both social and economic – and military dictatorship in the decades that followed, democratic and egalitarian expectations were dashed.
In this context, this paper tries to examine: (1) What were the various forces involved in the land reforms process? (2) Did Korea’s land reforms change the socio-economic conditions of the peasants? (3) What were the contributions of land reforms in laying the foundations for Korea’s democracy?
After the end of Second World War, radical reorganization of property relations and creation of a democratic nation-state were the preeminent demands of the people all over the newly decolonized world. Since the world war was fought as a decisive battle between democracy and fascism, the victorious allied powers committed themselves to create democratic nation-states in the colonies of the axis powers before giving them independence and sovereignty. Equally, the allies were convinced that cartelized industries and deconcentrated landholdings threatened domestic stability and international peace. Therefore, they tried to demolish all vestiges of colonial rule and create independent democratic nation-states capable of governing themselves.
In this process, the Korean peninsula came under the occupation of allied forces. However, Korea became a victim of the dynamics of the cold war. The two superpowers were divided on the central question of retaining or abolishing the institution of private property. The ideological differences between USA and USSR led to division of the peninsula along 38th parallel, with the North coming under Soviet zone of influence and the South under American zone of influence. Both the superpowers cultivated different political groups in the peninsula in order to strengthen and expand their ideological system. Korea thus became the ideological battleground for the victors of Second World War.
Radical redistribution of land were an important demand of the Korean people which was taken up by both the North and the South. North Korea’s land reforms took place in early 1946. South Korea’s land reforms were undertaken by two successive government viz. American Occupation Government in 1948 and South Korea’s first elected government in 1950.
In Korea’s historical context, Land reforms represent a watershed moment in the history of Korea. For the first time in history, the Korean tenants and tillers could claim ownership over a piece of land. It led to the complete annihilation of the centuries old landowning aristocracy and laid the foundation for a modern nation-state in Korea. It promoted rural egalitarianism and made the peasantry more participatory in Korea’s new political framework.
The Korean territory south of the 38th parallel came under the US zone of influence. The US setup a military occupation government, United States’ Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), and proceeded to create a liberal democracy with private property in the south as opposed to a socialist democracy without private property in the North.
The Communist North had undertaken radical land reforms in early 1946. It had redistributed all farmlands owned by both Japanese and Korean landlords to the tenants for free.
In the South, the first phase of land reforms were carried out by the USAMGIK in March 1948, in the tail end of its rule. In this policy the USAMGIK had only redistributed the Japanese owned land, which amounted to about 18 percent of the total farmland. USAMGIK did not touch the land owned by the Korean landlords and by early 1949 almost 63 percent of rural household were involved in tenancy.
Scholars have asserted that this halfhearted and partial land redistribution done by the US reflect that their intention was limited to preventing a communist takeover in the South. The communists in the South were highly influenced by the radical land redistribution in the North in 1946. Under tremendous pressure from the North’s influence, USAMGIK carried out the partial land redistribution and would not have done so in absence of a communist threat. Their claim is that USAMGIK could not emulate the land reforms in the north due to the reluctance of the conservative landowning Koreans, on whose support USAMGIK claimed legitimacy. This view suggests that US was not interested in raising the living standards of the peasants or creating a true democracy, but only to prevent communism in the South. This view is further supported by the fact that the reforms were not promulgated in early stages of USAMGIK’s reign in 1945, due to the presence of strong communist movement. Only after the communist movement had been considerably weakened, the USAMGIK carried out the land reforms, in the last months of its rule in March 1948.
But this widely held view has been challenged by recent scholarship which highlights the genuine intention of US to create a liberal democracy with the institution of private property. For such a Liberal Democratic system to survive the ownership of landed property by the masses was a necessity, but without alienating the Korean landowning elites. The US was convinced that true democracy cannot flourish in a society based on inequality. Therefore, US undertook political and economic reforms, similar to those undertaken in Japan and Germany. The aim was to decartelize industries and reduce concentration of land holdings to create more equal and just societies, in addition to curtailing communist revolutionary appeals.
The state in the South took up the interests of both landowners and peasants. The state charged the peasants for the lands they received, thus instituting private property. The redistribution of only Japanese owned lands is explained by the reluctance of Korean landowners to forego their property and dependence of USAMGIK on the landowning elites to justify their rule.
The clause to reform land relations was also embedded in South Korea’s constitution, thus making it irreversible. Therefore, the partial land reforms under USAMGIK served as a precursor to the comprehensive land reforms undertaken later in 1950. The completion of land reforms attests to the proposition that partial land reforms had been a conscious strategy of the USAMGIK to initiate the process for creating a true liberal democracy and capitalist system. That it could not do redistribution of all farmland is explained by the constraints created by intransigent Korean landowners.
The second phase of land reforms was undertaken under the leadership of Syungman Rhee in 1950. It was carried out by the first elected government of Korea, through its National Assembly.
The constitution of the Republic of Korea had set forth the purpose of land reforms in Article 121 as follows:
“The state shall endeavor to realize the land-to-the-tillers principle with respect to agricultural land. Tenant farming shall be prohibited” (Korean Constitution 1948)
Under the land reform, the maximum size of farm owned by a household was set at 3 chungbo (7.35 acres). The tenant purchaser was sold the land at 150% of the total value of each year’s crop. The tenant had to pay 30% of the crop over five years. The land lord was given bonds limited in redemption in any one year to 30% of the value of crop estimated as average yield and he was allowed this 30% over a five year period.
The expected redistribution of land was planned to affect about 40% of the total arable land in South Korea, including both the Japanese owned land and land subject to tenure reform.
The execution of land reforms was undertaken under a highly authoritarian and centralized administrative system created by Syungman Rhee regime. To assist local government in implementing the reform, “land committees” were constituted throughout the country. The composition of these committees was laid down by presidential decree. (Seong Bo 2013: 60)
Rhee appealed to all sections of Korea – farmers, landlords and capitalists – to cooperate and mutually benefit from the process. He appealed that all sections of society are equal citizens and must work together to develop the nation. Thus, the reformist and democratic credentials of the land redistribution was replaced by nationalist appeals. Class differences were blunted by appeals of class cooperation. This was in context of the larger agenda of Syungman Rhee to promote “one people-ism” (ilminjuui). (Seong Bo 2013: 60)
Reforming the agricultural land distribution is an important step in creating a modern nation-state. But it is only the first step, and plenty has to be done in order to further modernize agriculture, to make it more productive so as to empower the masses which depend on agriculture for livelihood. The success or failure of Korea’s land reforms has to be seen from this perspective that whether it actually empowered the peasants and revolutionize Korean agriculture.
Impact of land redistribution on agricultural productivity, and thus substantive improvement in living conditions of farmers, can be seen in terms of 3 factors of production: Land, Capital and Technology.
According to the statistical report made by the Korean Reconstruction Bank, the number of small farms (less than 1.22 acres) had increased by almost 3 % from 1947 to 1953.
But, according to the study conducted by Ki Hyuk (1956) among 360 farm households, the changes in the size of farm between 1950 and 1955 was as follows:
Therefore, land reforms appears to have done little in cutting down the size of large farms. Limited progress was made in its objective of distribution of land holdings to tenant cultivators.
After the land reforms, the tenants became the independent owners of the farm. Consequently, the responsibility of providing operating capital for cultivation fell upon them. Formerly, they obtained their operating capital from landlords. Now, they had to depend on other sources for credit which was the new problem for the state to resolve.
Access to farm credit was especially difficult for small farmers, as the lending institutions perceived too much risk to lend money to owners of small farms. Agricultural cooperatives had not been organized and neither given legal protection by the state. Lacking access to farm credit from formal sources, the small farmers turned to informal sources who supplied credit at high interest rates. Many such farmers were caught in debt trap and had to eventually sell their lands in the black market and becoming tenant farmers again. Without adequate credit financing facility, the land reforms can hardly be described as successful.
Improving agricultural productivity requires efficient management of land, labour, capital and modern technology. Serious investment is required from the state to end use of primitive tools and facilitate and train farmers to modern agricultural technology. However, little investment was done by the state in improvement of irrigation techniques, fertilizers, harvesters, thrashers and other means of improving agricultural production. The primary objective of any land reform is the increase in farm output, by which the standard of living of the masses of farmers could be substantially improved. But this was not achieved in the case of South Korea.
According to one thesis which compared land reforms in eight countries: “non-competitive systems” are more effective than “competitive systems” in operationalizing land reforms. “Non-competitive systems” are characterized by extreme centralization of power which is necessary for executing a radical policy like land reforms. Under a “competitive system”, the landowning class diversifies its interests through multiple political parties and creates hurdles in its implementation by reducing the speed, effectiveness and degree of the reform.
Therefore, successful land reforms may not directly translate into creating a successful democracy. Every country has its own methods and particularities which shapes the democratic character of the country. Further, it is difficult to establish a relation between the predominantly socio-economic context of land reforms and predominantly political context of democracy.
In the Korean case, scholars hold different views on the impact of land reforms on democracy. The impact of land reforms on Korean democracy can be seen in two ways: impact on procedural democracy in legislatures and democratic institution building, and the impact on substantial democracy in empowering the poor.
Here scholars have argued that Land reforms indeed provided the necessary experience in procedural democracy and law making by an elected assembly. This is significant as Korea never had an experience in democratic law making, having successively been a colony of Japan and US military. Land reforms gave an opportunity to different political factions to dialogue and negotiate over the character of land reform. (Seong Bo 2013: 58)
Further, the farmland committees established by the state to collect information and resolve civil disputes, was composed of both landlords and farmers. Thus class contradictions were sought to be reduced and dialogue was promoted as a way to resolve their differences.
These institutional structures were the foundations of Korean procedural democracy.
In terms of impact on substantial democracy, the land reforms do not contribute significantly. In fact, some scholars have argued that farmers became depoliticized and turned into passive supporters for the Syungman Rhee regime.
Land reforms and the inter-Korean war blunted the vibrant activism of farmers and made them conformists for the regime. The authoritarian regime of Syungman Rhee was fiercely anti-communist. It transformed the rural Korea from a base of resistance to a base of regime supporters.
The National Assembly declined to even the debate on the bill for the establishment of “cooperative associations”. Given the ratio of population to farmland in Korea, mere ownership of land was insufficient to ensure autonomy and economic self-sufficiency to the farmers. Cooperative associations were necessary to guarantee self-sufficiency to farming households through mutual cooperation.
In contrast, the land reforms in Japan were accompanied by establishment of rural autonomy and cooperative associations. The US was persistent in its efforts for rural democratization in Japan. Whereas, in Korea more focus was on institutionalization of private property rights and creation of liberal capitalist democratic system, as it was a frontline state against communism. Thus, even the subsequent land reforms, under Syungman Rhee, were shorn off the equalitarian social democratic and social reformist elementsю
Land reforms undertaken in Korea was a truly revolutionary step in the making of a modern democratic nation-state. It led to the collapse of the feudal landowning class and facilitated rural egalitarianism. It was heavily influenced by the dynamics of the cold war. The first phase of reforms was undertaken by the US occupation government in 1948. The US was insistent on institutionalizing private property rights and creating a liberal capitalist democracy, to create South Korea as a frontline state against communism. Such steps curtailed the socialist and welfare aspects of the land reforms. These trends paved the way for the next phase undertaken in 1950, which further built upon these lines.
The legislation of land reforms provided the necessary experience in procedural democracy, as the different political parties debated over the character of the bill in the National Assembly. The execution of the land reforms, under President Syungman Rhee was characterized by authoritarianism. The reformatory aspect of the land redistribution was replaced by appeals of nationalism and cooperation. The rural masses lost their revolutionary zeal and became passive recipients and supporters of Rhee Syungman regime.
However, the land reforms were inadequate in improving the standard of life of peasants. Limited success was achieved in changing the size of farmland ownership, little was done to improve other factors responsible for increasing agricultural productivity. With no access to farm credit, many farmers were forced to sell their land and again became tenant cultivators. With no investment in irrigation and other modernization techniques, farm output served only for subsistence of the household with little surplus to be sold in the markets to improve their living standards.
The inadequate importance to agricultural modernization and rural transformation can also be understood by the fact that the military regime of Park Chung Ghee, the successor of Syungman Rhee, was entirely focused on urban-based export led industrialization. Little attention was given to increasing agricultural productivity and improving living standards in villages.
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