Abstract

This study aims to incorporate sociocultural and everyday life historical perspectives into the existing research on South Korean land reform. It seeks to position the excluded voices of farmers into the narrative of economic history and, by doing so, examines the possibility of comparative studies of land reform within the politics of Cold War developmentalism. South Korean land reform in 1950 transformed most tenant farmers into independent small farm owners. Tenant farmers attained their long-held desire to own land, but individual farm management left them in a precarious state. Disconnected from organized labor as well as from landlords’ financial support, small-landed farmers began to suffer from the effects of low household income and a chronic lack of operating funds. To make matters worse, under the Syngman Rhee government, post–Korean War rehabilitation focused on fostering manufacturing while controlling inflation through intervention in the agricultural sector. In time, agrarian poverty led to a rural exodus, with the population of farm households dipping below 50 percent for the first time in 1969. In part because of these rapid shifts in population and production, the problems of a contracting agricultural sector were reduced to the problems of an expanding manufacturing sector. This context framed the South Korean government’s decision to initiate the New Village Movement under the slogan of rural modernization.

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