Research Snapshot: Revisiting Village Agricultural Cooperatives in Korea in 1960s
Dr Hwa-Jin Song
In 1963, there were 21,139 village agricultural cooperatives(里洞組合) recorded in South Korea.. In the context of South Korea’s authoritarian rule and top-down agricultural reforms such as the Saemaul Undong in the 1970s, there are some criticisms that farmers were only nominal members of cooperatives, which were most significant in relation to government-led policies. However, among village agricultural cooperatives, there are cases in which farmers led and operated the cooperatives through active participation and according to their needs and benefits. These cooperatives were called ‘advanced village agricultural cooperatives(先進里洞組合)’.
Songra village(松蘿마을), which I researched for my doctoral dissertation, can be seen as one of these advanced village agricultural cooperatives. Located in the granary of Icheon, Gyeonggi-do, this village operated several village business under the name of Songra village agricultural cooperative. In the 1960s, there was a cooperative market (est. 1961), a rice mill (est. 1962) and a pumping station (est. 1970), and in the 1970s, there was a rice bank (est. 1973), a women’s cooperative market (est. 1973), a grain bank (est. 1974), a credit union (est. 1975), and a straw bag workshop (est. 1975). These businesses were operated according to cooperative principles in 1960s, a practice which continued even after the village agricultural cooperatives was officially being merged into bigger cooperatives in the 1970s.
I first learned about this village through village documents produced by residents and donated to the Saemaul Museum in Sungnam, Gyeonggi-do. I was participating as a research assistant in a project to register Saemaul Undong as a UNESCO Memory of the World. Among all of the village documents that I copied and bound in this work, the Songra village documents were very large; about 80 percent of the documents from 10 villages were taken up by this one village. At that time, I had a simple idea that with this much data, I could study the development of a village from villagers’ point of view. In 2017, I set it as a case study for my doctoral dissertation and started researching it thoroughly.
The active village agricultural cooperatives and its many businesses were the biggest feature of Songra village. While the documents of other villages were of Saemaul ‘projects’, the documents of this village were filled with the operation records of village agricultural cooperative ‘businesses’. Because these businesses in Songra village were established from the early 1960s, the business items reflected the needs and demands of villagers, so they well reveal the dynamic initiative and active participation of farmers in the agricultural cooperative movements at the village level.
Mr. Kyoung-ryul Kim, Songra village leader, left a short memoir about his village activities and there were several meaningful scenes. Using this memoir as a clue, I visited village elders around the year of 2020, and listened stories about the establishment and operation of village businesses. I see these stories as reflecting the dynamics of rural villages in Korea in the 1960s, especially in villagers’ aspiration and initiative to live a better life and their strategy to mobilize resources inside and outside of the village to activate village businesses.
One story is about the process of establishment of village rice mill. There was one rice mill in the village and it was privately owned by Mr. Lee, a resident of a neighboring village. A young village leader, 26 years old, decided to let the village agricultural cooperatives take over the rice mill. At that time, the village common fund was not enough and the residents were too poor to invest in the project, so Mr. Kim visited several institutions in Icheon and finally secured a loan to buy the rice mill. This agenda was submitted at the village meeting, but it was initially rejected due to residents’ concerns that it would be difficult for the village joint management to succeed. Shocked by the rejection, Mr. Kim passed out for a while, and the villagers, concerned about Mr. Kim’s parents, decided to approve it.
With this approval, the village head(里長) and the village agricultural cooperative leader(組合長) visited the owner of the rice mill and suggested he sell the rice mill. However, the owner of the rice mill was unwilling to sell it, because there were no competitors in the village and the business brought him high-income. However, once the two village leaders told him that they would decided to build another rice mill as a village common business, the owner had no choice but to sell the rice mill. After experiencing a year of operation and profit distribution, the residents confirmed the possibility of running a village cooperative business, and the resulting village common funds became the basis for the establishment of a series of village businesses.
Through this story of a village cooperative business, we can see the process of creating a new economic structure through the activities of village leaders, the combination of village residents’ decision-making system and social relations, and the unity of village residents. All of this shows active efforts to improve their living conditions through an economic cooperative organization called village agricultural cooperatives in the 1960s.
The policy of fostering village agricultural cooperatives was maintained for short period. Under two 4-year plans from 1964 to 1967 and 1970-1974, agricultural cooperatives from several villages were grouped together to establish a unit village cooperative (單位組合) with a bigger scale. Some ‘advanced’ village agricultural cooperatives like those in Songra village were also scheduled to be dismantled and merged. However, in Songra village, the agricultural cooperative businesses continued to operate into the 1970s according to the principles of cooperatives, even after officially being merged into unit cooperatives.
Although village agricultural cooperative policy was active for a short period of time, I think it was meaningful for rural villages. There was an advantage that village’s range equaled the range of a cooperatives. It is helpful in achieving the original purpose of the agricultural cooperative movement, which is to improve the rights and interests of farmers. This is because the social relations, social organization and village level decision-making structure that already exist in the village can be utilized for the establishment and operation of the cooperatives. The history of village agricultural cooperatives in the 1960s in Korea needs to be known and reexamined further.
 Mr. Kim was an only son to elderly parents, who were in their fifties when he was born. In Mr. Kim’s case, the concern was magnified as his father was also an only son, of six generations.
 Song, Hwajin. 2022. Village capacities and village Enterprises in Korean Rural Villages: A Case Study on Songra Village in Gyeonggi Province in 1960s and 1970s. The Journal of Rural Society. Vol 32(2) pp. 93-137.
Dr Hwa-Jin Song (PhD, Academy of Korean Studies) received her PhD in Sociology from the Graduate School, Academy of Korean Studies in 2021. Her doctoral thesis started in rural villages in Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, and she expands her research interests to modern urban areas. She was also active in her local community, organizing small group activities for young parents and their children supported by the local district.