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The Dilemma of Tenant Farming in South Korea Byong Man Ahn and William W. Boyer Vulnerable to exploitative landowners, tenant farmers in increasing numbers constitute a persistent embarrassment to regimes that proclaim success in their so-called land-to-the-tiller and rural development programs (see, for example, Lehman 1974, and Ledesma 1976). Elimination of tenant farming and absentee landlords is, of course, part of the land reform associated with the decolonization process. Although the colonial experience may have ended years ago, many governments are still confronting rural conditions that prevailed during colonial times. In the interest of agricultural productivity and farm mechanization , they are threatening to abandon land-to-the-tiller programs and to undertake in their place programs that legitimate tenant farming and the abuses associated with it. South Korea is a case in point. Background to a Dilemma In South Korea, after thirty-five years of Japanese rule (19101945 ), tenant farming was formally abolished by the Land Reform Law of 1949.! Under the widespread practice of "lease" farming, however, tenant farmers—far from being nonexistent—have dramatically increased : from 26.4 percent of all South Korean farmers in 1960 to 33.5 percent in 1970 and 46.4 percent in 1981 (KIAE 1982:5).2 By 1986, 30.5 percent of South Korea's total farmland was estimated to be tenant farmland (Chungang Ubo, August 26, 1986), a very high percentage compared with other nations such as Japan (7 percent) and Taiwan (5 percent) (KIAE 1987:3). Although South Korea's present constitution, adopted in 1981, likewise prohibits tenant farming, it permits "lease" or "trust" farming undertaken to improve agricultural productivity. The present government is considering revision of the Land Reform Law, which ostensibly not only prohibits tenant farming and ownership of farmland by nonfarmers , but also limits ownership to a maximum of three hectares (7.41 acres). 2 AHN AND BOYER Revision of the Land Reform Law poses a dilemma for South Korea's government. On the one hand, the average land holding per farm household, including both rice fields and dry fields, is less than one hectare, which is too small for the operation of high performance agricultural machinery. "Farm mechanization in Korea necessitates an expanded scale of farming operations" (Moon 1980:242). On the other hand, the consequent increase in the number of absentee owners, together with a growing rural labor shortage, threatens to greatly increase the already portentous percentage of farm tenants and hence to nullify the Land Reform Law, which was motivated primarily to reduce the social inequities and economic oppression associated with Korea's long existing preliberation land tenure problem. Accordingly, the government is confronted with two conflicting basic value choices—the cost-benefit value of more efficient land use against the social equity value of a land-to-the-tiller policy. Research Perspectives These two streams of argument are examined here from a political science perspective. Our first task, however, is to examine tenant farming in its current context, together with its socioeconomic implications, in the light of existing literature. Second, we are concerned with discovering the political implications of tenant farming. In this respect, we are especially concerned with assessing political attitudes of tenant farmers and how they differ from those of landowners, and with the implications that can be drawn for rural and political development. This relates to the question of the proper extent to which the practice of tenant farming should be legitimized. Modernization, Migration, and Indebtedness Among the many positive changes in rural society wrought by the cooperative efforts of rural South Koreans under the government's New Community Movement (Saemaül Undong), launched in the early 1970s, have been great improvements in the physical environments and living conditions of their villages. Such community facilities as storage, water, and sewage systems, village community centers and laundry facilities, retaining walls, bridges, and roads, as well as the roofs of houses, have all been modernized . No longer is rural life barren of modern comforts. By 1983, most rural households had electric fans and television sets; and of every 100 households, there were refrigerators in 33.1, telephones in 35.7, and cameras in 9.2 of them (MAF...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1529
Print ISSN
0145-840X
Pages
pp. 1-13
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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