A version of this piece originally appeared in In Motion Magazine.
Yoon, Geum-Soon is the international coordinator of the Korean Women Peasants Association (KWPA), co-chairperson of the Korean Women’s Alliance, and a member of the International Coordinating Committee in La Via Campesina. In 2005, she was one of 1,000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize. La Via Campesina is an organization of organizations, part of a global movement of peasants, family farmers, indigenous and landless people. The interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on October 22-23, 2008 during the 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina. The interpreters for the interview were H.J. Park and B.S. Kim. The conference was held at the FRELIMO Party School in Matola, Mozambique. Grassroots International helped fund Nic Paget-Clarke’s trip to Mozambique.
In Motion Magazine: Could you please talk a little about the history of the KWPA?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: The KWPA was established in 1989. Next year is the 20th anniversary of our organization’s founding. Since the 1980s, many women farmer activists have joined our struggle.
The KWPA is an independent organization and we have carried out many activities. For example, we organize self-help education programs for our women farmers. We encourage the women to be able to read. Our goal is to make a good life for women farmers in Korea.
In Motion Magazine: How many members are there in the KWPA?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: Our membership is around 30,000.
In Motion Magazine: Why did you think it necessary to form the organization?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: In the 1980s, when neoliberalism started across the world, the Korean government tried to open our agricultural market because the price of the agricultural products had been decreasing dramatically. We couldn’t organize a strong struggle against this, at the time, because Korea was under a military dictatorship, but we did our best to improve the lives of women farmers. The problem was that even though the women farmers struggled a lot, the women farmers could not join the social movement. Women farmers could not participate in the decision-making process because Korea, at that time, was a male-dominated society. Because of that we needed to raise our women’s voice, so we thought we needed an independent organization for women.
In Motion Magazine: I was reading a brief article about your organization, and it put the situation of Korean agriculture in the context of the Japanese occupation of Korea (1905-1945), and then the U.S. presence. Could you go into that history and why it is important?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: As you know, Korea was under Japanese colonial law, and during that time many Korean people suffered. In particular, women were the main target of the suffering of Japanese colonial rule. We tried to overcome those difficulties, at that time, and we obtained liberation from Japanese colonial rule. But after Japan, the U.S. came into the Korean peninsula and the U.S. divided the peninsula into north and south Korea and since then the U.S. has had influence on politics and the military.
Because of that, the lives of women, also, have been affected by U.S. policies. For example, many Korean women suffer from sexual violence by the U.S. army and, also, many Korean women are killed by the U.S. army. Recently, maybe three or four years ago, two Korean school girls were killed by a U.S. army truck but there was no trial for the U.S. soldiers. They just went back to the U.S. without taking any responsibility for their activities. So, still, in Korea, we have some saying there is discrimination, in terms of U.S. policies in Korean society.
In Motion Magazine: And did that also have an impact on agriculture?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: There are some severe effects from the U.S. policies on Korean agriculture. I believe Korea is a showcase for the U.S. in terms of democracy in the Northeast Asia region. The U.S. wants to develop Korea in terms of industrialization and democratization. Because of that, in the 1960s, the ’70s, and the ’80s, the U.S. government pressured the Korean government to develop further, to provide land to build factories for industrialization. So, the Korean government changed the role of agricultural land to the purpose of industrial complexes and residential areas. In this process, many Korean farmers lost their land, or their livelihoods, and moved to the big cities to get a job. They joined the urban workforce, the workers in the urban area.
Through this process, the Korean government pressured the Korean people, but, as I said, we believe behind it was the U.S. policy to develop Korea as a showcase of democracy and industrialization in Asia.
During the Korean War, we got many bombs from their planes and, also, in this process, three million Koreans died. After the war, we wanted to revive our agricultural industry in rural areas. The U.S. government gave cheap agricultural products in the name of aid, but they didn’t have any interest in reviving Korean traditional agricultural systems. They distributed cheap abundant agricultural products from the U.S. into the Korean market. The Korean farmers could not compete with the cheap products from the U.S. They could not survive and so they moved to the city and became urban laborers.
In Motion Magazine: What percentage of the population now are farmers?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: Seven percent of the total population, around 3.2 million people. There are many sectors in Korean agriculture. The main sector is rice-growing, and, also, there is vegetable-producing, and animal production, such as cattle and pigs.
In Motion Magazine: What do you think of this industrialization process?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: Industrialization in Korea was very fast; it was done in a very short time. Many people say that this industrialization is the Miracle on the Han River — the Han river is the main river in Seoul. But, again, I believe that this industrialization process has been carried on not only for the economy but for political reasons. Behind this industrialization there was a political purpose — to develop Korea as a showcase in East Asia for the U.S. They needed a showcase in Asian countries, in terms of democracy and industrialization. Korea was targeted by the U.S. for this development. In this process, the rights of laborers could not be guaranteed, and also much of nature has been contaminated by toxins and chemicals.
In Motion Magazine: So, the Green Revolution was part of this process?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: For industrialization in Korea, we needed cheap labor forces. Because of that, the then-Korean government tried to lower the price of agricultural products, which caused Korean farmers to give up their agriculture. They (the farmers) then went to the cities and joined the cheap labor forces. Those were the government policies.
The Korean government wanted cheap agricultural products and also to produce a lot of rice. The Korean government got seed from the Philippines and a U.S. research center. That was the start of the Green Revolution in Korea, at the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s when Korea was under a military dictatorship, lead by former-President Park Chung-Hee.
In Motion Magazine: Can you talk about your work in the Korean Women’s Alliance?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: Foreign immigrants who come from Southeast Asia (in particular, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia – see JoonAng Daily, 2/28/2009) come to Korea to get married with Korean men in rural areas. (“In rural areas, up to 40 percent of marriages involved an international bride.” — JoonAng Daily). Many Korean men cannot get married to Korean women so they send for women from Southeast Asia. But now the women who come from Southeast Asia are the main target for domestic violence in Korea. Because of the difference of the colors, of the races, they are targets for domestic violence. The husbands say, “I spent my money to buy you”. You are not a
human being, just a target for domestic violence. This is the situation in rural areas. But, still, many people say, “If I hit my wife, it is understandable.” This situation is spreading in the rural areas.
The women from Southeast Asian countries moved to Korea because of the neoliberal policies. They can no longer live in their rural areas so they choose to move to Korea. Both the Korean husbands (Korean women also leave their rural areas in search of work — JoonAng Daily) and the wives from the foreign countries are victims of the neoliberal polices. Now is the time to stop the domestic violence against women. We need to try to develop this concept, to be against the neoliberal policies in Korea.
We are organizing education programs for the women and for the men, in terms of sexual violence and domestic violence. The education for the women is going well, but the men are not joining by themselves. This is the problem. When we have a domestic or sexual violence case we try a law suit against the husband, or partner — to get a trial.
The situation is not good in Korea, in terms of the women from the foreign countries. They have different languages and different cultures, so now we are organizing programs to overcome these language and cultural barriers and to help these women. We plan to encourage the women to be more self-reliant so that the women can resist by themselves against domestic violence, so they can go to their neighbors to get help. Also, we are continuing to persuade the male partners about this process.
The main agenda of the Korean Women’s Alliance is these education programs and the anti-domestic violence program in Korean society, both in the cities and the rural areas.
I believe that because of the neoliberal policies some women who are living in the rural areas in other Asian countries want to move to the cities and to other countries to get more money, to get a job. This process has some women choosing to go to Korea, whether or not they want to marry Korean men. But this immigration comes from neoliberal policies. These women cannot stay where they are from. Without doing away with the neoliberal or capitalist systems we cannot stop this immigration process. Also, we cannot stop the domestic violence which comes from this immigration. I believe there is a very close relationship between the neoliberal policies and immigration, so now we are trying to stop these neoliberal policies and this immigration and the domestic violence against the women.
I believe we need a joint struggle between the countries who are sending the women and the countries which are receiving the women. The people who live in both countries must join together and take some action to stop this process.
Now, in Via Campesina we have the Immigration Working Committee. We must raise this issue with the public, to gain more public opinion to tackle these issues, to join activities to stop this process.
(Editor’s note, during this conference, Via Campesina voted to begin an international campaign to combat violence against women)
In Motion Magazine: Can you talk about the role of women and seeds in agriculture?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: In La Via Campesina, farmers and other people are talking about food sovereignty and I believe the precondition to realize food sovereignty is women’s rights. Women have an important role in realizing food sovereignty. Women are those who actually find seeds, collect seeds, develop seeds, and preserve them. I believe that when it comes to connecting consumers with producers, women have an important role. To preserve seeds, to preserve natural resources, women have a traditional role in protecting them.
In Motion Magazine: Can you give an example of, say, a particular seed and the process around that?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: What kind of seed is not important. The important matter is there are so many small seeds. We have to see the seeds with our naked eyes and we have to see which are the best for seeding. We have to collect the best seeds for preservation. The women select the best seeds and they wrap the seeds in cloth. They put the cloth with the seeds in them in the kitchen. They hang them from the kitchen ceiling for preservation and sterilization. There are so many seeds they have to collect and preserve that they have to depend on their memory. The men cannot do that, so only women do that job.
This is a very meticulous process. They spread out all the seeds together in the same place. They look at them with their naked eyes and they collect them. They repeat this process over and over.
In Motion Magazine: Do you want to talk about that in contrast to genetically-modified seeds?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: In contrast to the GMO (genetically-modified organism) seeds — those transnational companies took away those traditional seeds and developed those traditional seeds, which actually belonged to those women and other farmers, and they use them for bio-fuels and other GMO seeds.
In Motion Magazine: So, this taking away of that role from women — what is the impact on women’s everyday lives?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: The collecting and preserving of seeds is a very important job. Because of that important job, women have been respected in the agricultural area. Now that those jobs are taken away by the transnational companies, the women are losing their respect in the community.
In Motion Magazine: Are their other effects of the GMOs on the economics or even control of the community?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: First, the GMO seeds are very expensive. Let’s say the traditional seeds are ten cents, compared to that a GMO seed is 100 cents. The results in an increase in agricultural production costs. This puts the farmers and peasants in debt, borrowing money to produce their crops.
Another problem is that the transnational companies sell their experimental GMO seeds, when they are still in the process of development. They want to sell and distribute these seeds to farmers, but they are still in an experimental stage, the characteristics of the GMO seeds are not stable. Sometimes it brings good harvest, but sometimes it ruins the whole year’s crop.
A third problem coming from the GMO seed is viruses. When the GMO seed is not stable, and in an experimental stage, it comes with a virus (it is like a virus). And this virus pollutes and contaminates the soil, so the next year when the farmers try to cultivate another crop, the crop will not produce enough.
And fourthly, there are the side-effects of the GMO seeds. Let’s say one GMO has a function so that it does not require any pesticides. Well, the insects don’t go near this GMO product any more, but, then, they do go to other farming areas, which are then victimized.
In Motion Magazine: Is there an aspect of GMOs that has to do with food sovereignty?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: GMO seeds are usually used to the benefit of corporate financial gains. That is why many transnational companies try to cultivate crops, to use them for agro-fuels. They cultivate crops, corn and beans, to produce agro-fuels and that land is exploited as a way to produce fuel not food — at the expense of the land quality. Ultimately, that land cannot produce any food any more.
Also, from the perspective of consumers, consumers really don’t know GMOs are in their food. Usually GMO food is consumed in the form of processed food. Customers, consumers have a right, as an aspect of food sovereignty, to decide what they want to eat, but they consume those foods without realizing what result it will bring about to their body.
In Motion Magazine: What is the status of the Free Trade Treaty between the U.S. and South Korea.
Yoon, Geum-Soon: Negotiations on the agreement between the two countries are concluded. Currently, the bill is waiting in the Korean parliament for ratification. In Korea the lawmakers have started to talk about this issue, but also, on the other hand, the U.S. government has not ratified it.
In Motion Magazine: What is your opinion of it?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: I am against all forms of FTAs (Free Trade Agreements), especially when it comes to the U.S./Korea FTA. The negotiations started in the wrong way from the very beginning. The Korean government gave away too many concessions to the U.S. government. I am against all the FTAs. I believe free trade agreements are only for the benefit of the corporations – not the farmers. Therefore, I think it will ultimately harm food sovereignty.
I will give you an example which happened in Korea. As I mentioned earlier, after the agricultural market was opened in Korea, there were many cheap products on the Korean market. Korean farmers saw their incomes going down and then the government encouraged the farmers to have “economies of scale”. So, the farmers borrowed a lot of money to produce a lot. Ultimately, this increased their production costs and put them in debt. Because of this many cannot pay back their debts and many have committed suicide.
In Motion Magazine: There has been talk at this conference of the problems that come with concentrated capital and everything being for the market. Are their alternatives that the KWPA is doing among the farmers? Alternative ways of developing an economy that is more supportive of the farmers? For example, do you use cooperatives or local markets?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: Let me tell you what is going on in the Korean agricultural area. We women peasants develop our crops and process those foods. Then, we connect the women peasants with the women customers in the city, in the urban areas. We are using direct marketing.
The other campaign we are launching is the revitalization of disappearing-traditional seeds. We collect all the seeds which are at risk of disappearing and we plant those seeds in our rural areas. We provide, distribute these seeds to other people so they can cultivate those seeds. That way we produce those foods again. We re-begin the natural cycle.
In Motion Magazine: How successful is this direct marketing? How many people are involved?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: This direct marketing is in an early stage, so there are not so many people, yet. But there are many hundreds of people who are involved in this activity in the form of their co-op.
Also, the other activity we are doing, right now, is setting up common cafeterias in the rural areas. People are so busy with their farming, so, we, KWPA, set up these so-called “common cafeterias”. Let me explain, the peasants are very busy with their cultivation, so at lunch time they go to the restaurant to buy food. But instead of buying those foods, we provide our food, which we cultivated, for a price, so they can consume good food. Our motto is, basically, we want to consume what we produce in the local community.
In Motion Magazine: Do you see these ideas as the beginnings of an alternative world?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: Yes, I believe in these ways, but I also believe the ultimate way is impossible without a political change?
In Motion Magazine: And how does that come about?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: This has to do with the attitude of the government. The current government is not supporting these ways, so there are no laws to promote these activities. I believe that the lawmakers, the government, should change their mindset and support us.
In Motion Magazine: Are you trying to concentrate on changing the government or bringing about change by doing it by example with things like the co-ops and the cafeteria?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: KWPA is setting the example, as you said, so other people can follow suit, but to really push these activities forward, we need strong support from the government. So, we try to pressure the government to participate in these activities by establishing public policies.
In Motion Magazine: And how do you pressure them to do that?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: By using all the resources that we have. We are launching campaigns. We make demonstrations and take to the streets. Also, we are launching petition campaigns to the lawmakers. On the small scale, we publish articles on the local level government, to support women peasants. Also, we, ourselves, are directly involved in politics so we become the lawmakers.
In Motion Magazine: North Korea is definitely not part of the corporate system, but still people are starving to death there. What happened there? Why do you think that is?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: To my understanding, even in the 1980s, North Korea had a stronger economy than South Korea. There was a market for trade between socialist countries, but since the collapse of eastern Europe there is no market for North Korea. Also, the U.S. blocked all the economic activities coming to North Korea. So, basically, North Korea doesn’t have any energy to produce and consume. And, even though they have some machines, the machines are sitting idle. Also, they have had many natural disasters. I think that is why they are suffering from such great hunger.
In Motion Magazine: Do you think it’s a problem that their economy is centrally organized, that instructions come from the top, as to what to produce? Do you think that has any impact?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: I don’t think that is the cause of the hunger in North Korea. Even though in South Korea we have the freedom to choose what kind of crop we want to cultivate, the competition in South Korea is really not very fair. Even though we choose what we want to produce, when the price becomes higher, the government decides to import cheaper products forcing the price to go down, which deals a blow to farmers in Korea.
In Motion Magazine: Are you yourself a farmer?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: I grow about 20 kinds of crops. My main source of income is from selling yellow melons. My other crops are for my family.
In Motion Magazine: What is the situation with your farm? Are there difficulties?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: I used to sell my products directly to the market, but nowadays I’m selling my crops through the co-ops, so it is a much better way to earn a stable income. Before the co-ops, the market was so unpredictable, so our income was unstable. But, thanks to the co-op system, we can predict what is coming for our income.
In Motion Magazine: Do you think there is a connection between food and democracy?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: Yes. I believe there is a strong link between food and democracy because people are supposed to eat every day, so food is our essence. We should be guaranteed access to food. Think about the situation if somebody is controlling all the food, that means that people are forced to follow whatever they want from us. Ultimately, this will harm democracy. When we have enough food, we have room for creativity and to think about what we want.
Throughout history there are many examples. When there is a lack of food, dictatorship comes along and also some people try to control food because they believe that once they start to control food they can get power.
In Motion Magazine: Do you think that the cooperatives and the cafeteria and that kind of participation creates a more direct democracy, as opposed to representative democracy where people are removed from those who chose them?
Yoon, Geum-Soon: Yes, this way there is more direct democracy, and, actually, when it comes to representative democracy, it is like we are commissioning our rights into other people’s hands. This way, we have the direct power.