The agricultural sector’s share of gross domestic product (GDP) in South Korea continues to decline. GDP — composition, by sector of origin in 2017: agriculture: 2.2 percent; industry: 39.3 percent (2017 est.); services: 58.3 percent (2017 est.). Agriculture, forestry and fishing accounted for nearly 50 percent of GDP in 1965. It shrunk to 6.2 percent of GDP in 1995 to 5 percent in 1999, and was only 3.8 percent in 2003, when the agricultural sector’s share of GDP was 3.2 percent of GDP. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Library of Congress 2005; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Agricultural products: rice, root crops, barley, vegetables, fruit, cattle, pigs, chickens, milk, eggs, fish. South Korea still produces most of its domestically consumed rice. Traditional cash crops such as ginseng, tobacco, tea, and silkworms remain important. The total output of the agriculture forestry and fishery sector grew 4.7 percent in 1999, after a contraction of 6.6 percent in 1998 as a result of the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis.

Labor force — by occupation: agriculture: 4.8 percent; industry: 24.6 percent; services: 70.6 percent (2017 est.). Agriculture employed 8–12 percent of the labor force in the early 2000s. In 1999, its share of the workforce was 10.09 percent (2,349,000 workers), a decrease from 1995 when its share was about 12.2 percent (2,534,000).

Price instability, particularly associated with cheap imports, is an increasing source of internal and external political friction. The primary crop in South Korea is rice; 80 percent of farms cultivate it, and domestic production sufficient to supply the nation remains a political priority. Other major crops include barley, wheat, soybeans, and potatoes, although production has declined steadily. South Korean demand for these products is satisfied through imports. Livestock production has increased with consumer demand and prosperity and is the second largest subsector of the agricultural economy behind rice. Fruit and vegetable production continues to supply domestic needs. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

Agricultural Land in South Korea

Land use in South Korea. agricultural land: A) 18.1 percent (15.3 percent is arable land; 2.2 percent is permanent crops and 0.6 percent is permanent pasture); forest: 63.9 percent; other: 18 percent (2011 est.). Arable land is land cultivated for crops like wheat, maize, and rice that are replanted after each harvest. Permanent crops is land cultivated for crops like fruit trees oranges that are not replanted after each harvest. In 2001 about 17 percent of South Korea’s land was classified as arable, and some 2 percent was planted to permanent crops. Irrigated land: 7,780 square kilometers (2012)

Because Korea is so mountainous and rocky than 20 percent of South Korean land is good for agriculture. Rice is the chief crop. Paddy fields make up about half of the farmland. Th emain rice-growing areas are along the coasts, in reclaimed tidal areas, and in river valleys. About 70 percent of South Korea’s agricultural land is sown with grain, primarily rice. Double-cropping is common in the southern provinces. The amount of arable land decrease from a share of 21.8 percent (21.6 million hectares) of total land in the early 1950s to 21 percent of the total land (20.7 million hectares) in the 2000s. Urbanization and road building are the two main causes of the decrease. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: ““The Korean peninsula extends southward from the mainland, between China and Japan. The waters surrounding it moderate and determine its weather, which is hot and humid in the summer and cold and dry in winter, following the weather pattern known as the monsoon. The warmth and rains of summer make Korea an ideal place to grow rice, and irrigated paddy lands are visible everywhere in the country. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

In fact, because Korea is so mountainous and populous, it seems that every square inch of land is used for growing something. Tiny fields appear to crawl up the mountainsides, growing potatoes and leafy vegetables that do not require flat land. In addition, since the introduction of plastics, clear vinyl greenhouses have become a familiar feature of the landscape, sheltering fruits and vegetables from the wind and cold and lengthening the growing season. Plastic greenhouses are just one of the many dividends of economic modernization, bringing better food for everyone.

Crops in South Korea

South Korea agricultural products: rice, root crops, barley, vegetables, fruit, cattle, pigs, chickens, milk, eggs, fish. South Korea still produces most of its domestically consumed rice. Traditional cash crops such as ginseng, tobacco, tea, and silkworms remain important. The total output of the agriculture forestry and fishery sector grew 4.7 percent in 1999, after a contraction of 6.6 percent in 1998 as a result of the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The primary crop in South Korea is rice. About 80 percent of farms cultivate it. Other major crops include barley, wheat, soybeans, and potatoes, although production has declined steadily. Korean fruit growers produce plentiful crops of pears, persimmons, apples, peaches and melons. The Taegu area is famous apples. Output in 2004 was 60,000 tons. About two-thirds of vegetable production is made up of the mu (a large white radish) and Chinese cabbage, the main ingredients of kimchi. Barley, wheat, corn, soybeans, and grain sorghums are extensively cultivated in the highlands. Other crops include pulses, cotton, tobacco and sweet potatoes. Cattle, pigs, and chickens are raised. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press; “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”, The Gale Group, Inc., 2002; Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

South Korea produces significant amounts of barley and wheat and other grains and agricultural products but not enough to meet domestic needs. Therefore, it imports large amounts of agricultural products, mainly cereals and preparations. In 2004, South Korea produced 260,000 tons of barley; 550,000 tons or potatoes and 139,000 tons of soybeans. In 1999 it produced 189,000 metric tons of wheat, In 1998, South Korea imported US$1.716 billion worth or agricultural products.

Despite increased yields due to mechanization, the use of hybrid seeds, and increased employment of fertilizers, South Korea still runs a net deficit in food grains every year. In 2004, it US$2.2 billion of cereals, mostly from the United States. Most of it was wheat and corn. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The world's first soybeans evolved from wild plants found in Korea. Garlic was the No. 2 cash crop for a while after rice. In recent years garlic farmers have suffered as a result of an influx of cheap garlic from China, Hemp, hops, and tobacco are the leading industrial crops. The ROK was the world's second-leading producer (after China) of chestnuts in 2004. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Barley was the second most important crop. Its production declined from about 1.5 million tons in 1970 to about 561,500 tons in 1988. Other crops included such grains as millet, corn, sorghum, buckwheat, soybeans, and potatoes. Fruits and vegetables included pears, grapes, mandarin oranges, apples, peaches, Welsh onions, Chinese cabbage, red peppers, persimmons, cabbage, peaches, and radishes. Other important cash crops included cotton, hemp, sesame, tobacco, and ginseng. In 1988, livestock heads included native Korean cattle (2 million), hogs (4.9 million), and poultry (almost 59 million). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Food Self-Sufficiency and Imports in South Korea

South Korea’s food self-sufficiency rate of 27 percent is one of the lowest in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). While 96 percent of rice is grown domestically, for other crops the average is only 5 percent. [Source: Oxford Analytica, November 5, 2008]

Korea imported 64 percent of its grain in the early 1960s partly because of the heavy loss of cropland to industrial development. Agricultural imports, mainly cereals and preparations, reached US$1.7 billion in 1998. Overall its self-sufficiency rate for food dropped from 80 percent in the 1950s to 50 percent in 2000. Domestic production of rice is sufficient to supply the nation and accomplishing this is a political priority. The production of other major crops such as barley, wheat, soybeans, and potatoes has declined steadily and the shortfall is made up through imports. Price instability, particularly associated with cheap imports, is an increasing source of internal and external political friction.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “Despite increased yields due to mechanization, the use of hybrid seeds, and increased employment of fertilizers, the ROK runs a net deficit in food grains every year. In 2004, imports of cereals, mostly from the United States, amounted to US$2.2 billion, consisting almost entirely of wheat and corn. Virtual self-sufficiency has been attained in rice production, but at a cost of nearly US$2 billion per year in direct producer subsidies. In 2004, the ROK's agricultural trade deficit was US$8.4 billion, fifth highest in the world. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

South Korea imports beef, wheat and soy beans from the United States and Australia and gets nearly all of its garlic, a key component to Korean cooking, from China. A) The worlds top importers of corn are (1991): 1) Japan, 2) The USSR, 3) South Korea, 4) Taiwan, 5) South Africa, 6) the Netherlands, 7) Zimbabwe, 8) Malaysia, 9) Spain, 10) the UK. B) The worlds top importers of wheat are (1991): 1) the USSR, 2) China, 3) Italy, 4) Egypt, 5) Japan, 6) Brazil, 7) South Korea, 8) Algeria, 9) Iran, 10) Indonesia.

Protections and Government Support of Agriculture in South Korea

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: South Korea “has one of the most protected agricultural economies of the world, with high production costs supported by government purchases, and high tariffs protecting domestic producers from import competition. In 2004, a free trade agreement with Chile became effective, whereby trade duties were lifted on many of Chile's agricultural goods. The agreement was strongly opposed by the ROK's agricultural sector. The government has agreed to a farm support program worth US$100 billion during 2004–11, whereby farmers will receive compensation for the anticipated losses caused by Chilean imports. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“Since the 1950s, South Korea has a well-developed and highly productive agricultural sector, thanks to several factors: government financial assistance (US$8.3 billion in 2000), mechanization, and extensive use of fertilizers. To encourage growth and make the country self-sufficient in its major food item, rice, the government has prohibited rice imports under normal circumstances. It has also paid farmers higher than the world price for their rice while subsidizing consumers to make rice affordable for all. As a result, South Korea is now self-sufficient in rice production and the production of many kinds of fruit and vegetables.

According to AFP: “Rice imports are an extremely sensitive political issue among rural voters who fear they would eventually be pushed out of the market by cheap foreign imports. Rice farmers warn the tariffs will swiftly be cut back as the result of free-trade deals with rice-exporting nations.” Between 1995 and the late 2010s South Korea had agreement with the World Trade Organization (WTO) provides for mandatory rice imports, which this year will amount to nearly 410,000 tonnes — or around 10 percent of consumption. See Farmer’s Protests Below [Source: AFP, September 18, 2014]

Farmers in South Korea

Korea has about 1.1 million farm households. The average cultivated area is 1.5 hectares per household, or 3.7 acres (in 2013; MAFRA, Yearbook). Most farms cultivate rice. The small land size of each farm limits the amount that can be earned from rice. Other major farm activities include producing vegetables, fruits, and livestock products (MAFRA, Yearbook). Nevertheless, generating an income similar to urban incomes from agricultural activities alone on 1.5 hectares is difficult. Much of the farmland is relatively distant from large employment centers. While nonfarm income now is the largest part of farm household income, farm activities still contributed 39 percent of household income in 2013. One way to boost farm household income is to raise revenues from rice production by keeping market prices high. [Source: Economic Research Service/USDA United States Department of Agriculture, September 2016]

There were 6 million farmers in South Korea in the late 1990s but only 3.4 million in the mid 2000s. Koreans used to use human manure to fertilize their crops but began using cow manure partly to deflect criticism by Westerners. One unexpected result was an increase in sewage problems.

According to “Farmers in South Korea typically depend on rice for about half their income, an income which averages just 75 per cent of that of their urban peers. The government buys up one-third of the crop as growers produce more than the country needs, but farmers are still heavily indebted. Debts increased from 23.1 million won (US$ 174,800) per household to 26.9 million won in 2000-2004. The government has poured more than US$ 60 billion over the past 10 years into rural areas, and has announced a new plan to put another US$ 100 billion over the next 10 years into the agriculture sector. But it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to reverse a rural exodus to the cities. [Source:, November 25, 2005]

The average farm size is tiny — just over one hectare, compared with two hectares in Japan and 60 in the U.S. In the late, 2000s, about 60 percent of farmers wre aged over 60, with 28 percent in their 70s. Only 2.5 percent are under 40. Between 1997 and 2007, the rural population of South Koreas fell from 5.2 million to 3.2 million out of a total population of 49 million. [Source: Oxford Analytica, November 5, 2008]

Consumers seem willing to pay higher prices fr domestically grown products to help local farmers out. The sales of noodles made with domestically grown wheat and potatoes accounts for half of all noodle sales even though domestically grown wheat and potatoes are much expensive than imported ones..

Farming in South Korea

Rice agriculture predominates but is not absolute. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Of course, some land is simply not suited for rice at all and is used for other crops. Alternative grains include barley, millet, corn, and wheat. Other fields contain soybeans, spinach, radish, and the myriad ingredients of Korean cuisine. There are apple orchards, vineyards, tobacco fields, pumpkin and potato patches. Since Koreans started making greenhouses out of vinyl sheeting, it has become possible to grow oranges and bananas and other things that could not ordinarily be grown in Korea's temperate climate. This variety is further enriched by beef, pork, poultry, milk products, and seafood. But snowy white rice remains the country's elemental food. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

Ginseng grown under plastic tarpaulins in Korea. Ginseng is a slow-growing temperamental plant that is difficult to grow and even more difficult to profit from because the most valuable roots are the oldest ones.

Organic farming is becoming more popular. As of 2002. about 3 percent of produce sold was organic. Agriculture officials hoped to increase that figure to 10 percent by 2010. Some schools serve organically-grown food. Organic farming is being promoted both for its health benefits and for the positive impact of using less fertilizers and pesticides on the environment.

One solution to South Korea’s farming is to consolidate small farms into larger, more efficient ones. According to Oxford Analytica: Advocates of farm consolidation on economic grounds face both legal and cultural obstacles. After widespread tenancy and impoverishment in the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), the ideal of the small yeoman farmer remains strong, even though half a century of urbanization and industrialization have made agriculture marginal both commercially and sociologically. Few politicians (or others) are prepared to challenge farmers’ claim on the nation’s conscience and the public purse. Subsidies to farmers run at over a trillion won annually.” [Source: Oxford Analytica, November 5, 2008]

See Rural Life

Problems Faced by South Korea Farmers

As South Korea has industrialized there has been less emphasis on agriculture. South Korean farmers have been hurt by globalization. Cheap imports has made it hard for them to compete and make a descent living. To protect farmers, South Korea had tariffs over 100 percent on 142 farm products in the mid 2000s. Consumers pay about for times what American pay for rice.

Measures to protect farmers have decreased. South Korea can not risk raising tariffs too high and alienating and angering countries that it exports cars, phones and electronics and other products to. In recent years, South Korea has lowered some tariffs. These measures have hurt farmers. In some places farmers have abandoned their land or have been forced to by debts and creditors.

According to “Although South Korea's dwindling number of farmers are among the world's most protected, their future now looks increasingly bleak, with globalisation gaining ground and their near-sacred rice markets soon to be pried open. South Korean agriculture, based on back-breaking labour on small holdings of rice paddy and vegetable patches, remains extremely vulnerable to foreign competition. Tariffs are among the highest in the world. A whopping 600 per cent tariff is imposed on imported sesame to keep out cheap Chinese products that would wipe out the Korean crop. More than half a million farmers have walked off their farms in four years, leaving 3.4 million people earning their livelihoods from farming. [Source:, November 25, 2005]

In 2008, Lee Bong-hwa, South Korea’s vice minister for health, welfare and family affairs, resigned after admitting she received a subsidy, intended for poor farmers, to grow rice on land she owned but did not actually farm. Bong-hwa was the most high-profile casualty of the rice subsidy scandal. It is alleged that in 2007 alone, at least 168 billion won (US$131 million) in government subsidies, meant to cushion rice growers against market opening, went to as many as 170,000 ineligible applicants, including up to 46,000 civil servants, as well as some lawmakers. Angry farmers. While the individual sums are not large, land farmed for eight years is exempt from property taxes, with no proof required that the applicants are the actual farmers. True farmers, notoriously militant–this subsidy was meant to placate them–have demonstrated daily since the scandal broke. Some tenant farmers allege that their wealthy, non-farming landlords have pocketed the subsidy instead of passing it on. [Source: Oxford Analytica, November 5, 2008]

Farmers Groups and Politics in South Korea

During the postwar period, articulation of workers' interests had been weakest for South Korea's farming population. In 1946 the government used the Korea Federation of Peasants to mobilize the rural population against leftist peasant unions. The Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives, established in 1957, was also largely funded and administered by the state. Its purpose was not to represent farmers' interests, but to facilitate government control over the purchase and sale of grain and farmers' purchases of fertilizer. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Although most South Korean farmers continued to belong to cooperatives, two pressures converged in the late 1980s to change the way in which farmers' interests were represented. First, as rural-urban income disparities grew in the late 1970s and 1980s, farmer dissatisfaction with the government cooperatives' role in setting crop prices and the costs of agricultural supplies also increased. Some farmers turned to independent organizations, such as the Korean Catholic Farmers Association or the Christian Farmers Association. These groups, which were viewed as dissident organizations by the government, performed a variety of services for farmers and also took public positions on government agricultural and price policies, sometimes using mass rallies. The second change, which affected larger numbers of farmers, was the result of South Korea's growing trade surpluses in the late 1980s. As the government responded to pressure from major trading partners, such as the United States, to open South Korea's domestic markets, farmers became increasingly active in large-scale protest rallies against both the government and the major political parties. As the 1990s began, it was clear that the traditional harmony of political interests between a conservative rural population and conservative governments had ended.*

In September 2003, Lee Kyung Hae, a South Korean farm leader killed himself at a World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun to protest agricultural trade policies. He climbed a barricade and plunged his Swiss army knife into his heart. What was viewed abroad as a desperate gesture by disturbed man, was applauded as a heroic act by rural people in South Korea. Lee was a member of a provincial assembly.

Farmer Riot in South Korea

According to AFP. Farmers' organisations have always met any slight policy change with angry protests. At one protest in 2014 farmers held banners saying "No to opening of the rice market!" and threw eggs and pepper powder at the members of the parliamentary agriculture committee. In 2005, angry farmers piled up sacks of rice and set them ablaze in villages and towns across the country and used tractors to block highways and dump rice outside provincial government buildings. [Source: AFP, September 18, 2014; [Source:, November 25, 2005]

In 2005, thousands of farm activists and union workers hurled bottles in a clash with police near an APEC meeting venue in Pusan in protest that was put down a water cannon. Jack Kim of Reuters wrote: “The clash broke out about two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the convention center where leaders from 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies were meeting. About 2,000 farmers and farm activists and 3,000 union workers took to the streets of Pusan to denounce APEC, the World Trade Organization and U.S. President George W. Bush, who was attending the leaders' meeting. “Organizers had hoped as many as 100,000 would attend. They said police had turned back busloads of people on highways before they even got to Pusan. [Source: Jack Kim, Reuters November 18, 2005]

“Nearly 30,000 police were deployed in and around the summit. When several hundred protesters who made it to the city tried to get to the venue by pushing past a police line they were stopped. "We want to hurt them and we want them to hurt us," a farmer from just north of the port city said, as he brandished a weighty three-meter (10-foot) bamboo stick, his face masked with a red handkerchief and his breath smelling of South Korean rice wine. The protesters threw rocks and bottles and propelled them with bamboo sticks and metal rods. Police repelled the assaults with shields and fired high-pressure sea water. The protesters failed to break through a make-shift police barricade of ocean-liner cargo containers and cross a bridge on to the grounds of the convention center.

A handful of riot police officers were taken away by ambulance with injuries from rocks thrown by the protesters, some the size of a volleyball, police said. The protest dispersed after two hours. The farmers were rallying against a bill being considered by South Korea's parliament to increase incrementally foreign access to the country's rice market, as well as global trade talks such as those under the World Trade Organization. "No to Bush, No to APEC. No to rice market opening. No to the WTO," they shouted as they marched through Pusan. Some older farmers had tears in their eyes as their voices rang out.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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