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Suicide Puts Face on Farmers' Plight

South Korean activist who took his life at the WTO meeting becomes a symbol of opposition to more competition in agricultural markets.

September 19, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

TAESONG-RI, South Korea — At first glance, the farm looks like a painter's vision of a bucolic idyll, the hills scored with rows of apple trees and the meadows daubed with purple wildflowers.

But a closer look reveals that something is literally rotten in the fields. Decomposing into the rich soil are turnips and cabbages that nobody bothered to pick because prices are too low to be worth the time or gasoline to transport the produce to market.

This 80-acre farm once belonged to Lee Kyung Hae. The 55-year-old South Korean farmer and activist plunged a knife into his chest last week at the World Trade Organization conference in Cancun, Mexico, to protest efforts to further open agricultural markets to competition. Lee became a martyr to his cause, and his farm -- which was foreclosed in 1999 -- became a symbol of the plight facing small farmers in South Korea and elsewhere.

From Cancun to Seoul, anti-WTO activists have lighted candles in his memory. A veritable who's who of South Korean politicians and business leaders have sent traditional mourning wreaths of white chrysanthemums to his family.

Hundreds of mourners held a tribute Thursday when his body arrived at Seoul's Inchon International Airport, and Lee is expected to be accorded a hero's funeral Saturday at the city's Olympic Stadium.

"Nobody would have paid attention if he hadn't died this way," said his older sister, Lee Kyong Ja, 58, clad in black as she toured what had been his farm, eating the leaf of a discarded cabbage. "He would do anything for farmers. He put them ahead of his family and his own life."

"He wasn't depressed," said Lee Bo Ram, 27, the eldest of his three daughters. "He didn't have psychological problems. It was that he couldn't stand injustice. He wanted to seek a better life for farmers."

Lee Kyung Hae's message resonates in the heartland of South Korea, where farmers feel neglected as their country's leaders concentrate on semiconductors and automobiles instead of rice. Black-and-white banners urging that the fight continue are draped over the desolate country roads around Taesong-Ri.

The farming village, 130 miles south of Seoul in rural North Cholla province, is a ghost town of ramshackle houses. Its population has dropped from 1,500 two decades ago to just a few hundred; its elementary school and village hall have closed.

"It's been a long time since I heard a baby crying. There are only old people left. Nobody wants to live here anymore. It's just too hard to make ends meet as a farmer," said Yu Sang Ki, 50, who bought part of Lee's property after the farm was foreclosed and is struggling to break even growing apples.

The land originally belonged to Lee's father, a prosperous rice merchant in the nearby city of Changsu. Lee was sent away as a youth to be educated in Seoul, but surprised his parents by saying he wished to try his hand at farming.

"They thought it was too hard to work on a farm, but my younger brother insisted, and so they gave him the land," said Lee's sister.

Lee, who had earned a university degree in agriculture, bought dairy cows and planted corn, cabbages and other vegetables. He built a brick farmhouse on the property, and his wife and daughters served as extra farmhands. The neighbors joked that their home was the "Little House on the Prairie," referring to the U.S. television show then popular in South Korea.

But the hard work seemed to lead only to frustration and mounting debts. Lee watched with anger as many of his neighbors went bankrupt. He became increasingly interested in the politics of agriculture, assuming positions in farming associations and serving three terms in the provincial assembly.

It was apparent that the decline of Taesong-Ri was part of a larger trend in the country, which was undergoing rapid industrialization. From 1965 through last year, the number of South Koreans employed in agriculture dropped from 16 million to 3.5 million, despite a near doubling of the population. The increasingly prosperous nation was importing more of its food: South Korea is the fourth-largest market for U.S. agricultural exports, especially corn, beef, wheat, sugar and soy products.

Lee blamed the farmers' decline on the imports and the pressure of the United States and Europe on developing countries to further open their markets.

"Human beings are in an endangered situation that uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO official members are leading an undesirable globalization of inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer-killing and undemocratic policies," Lee wrote in a statement that he distributed in Cancun shortly before his death.

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