Story by David Bienenstock
Lee Kyung-hae traveled halfway across the globe, to CancÃºn, Mexico, with a simple message for the World Trade Organization. The 57-year-old South Korean farmer perched atop the security fence surrounding the group’s September 2003 negotiations and unfurled a banner that read, The WTO Kills Farmers. Then he plunged a Swiss Army knife directly into his own heart.
Within hours, the longtime activist was dead.
Lee’s bloody sacrifice was the final act in a personal drama of defiance that included over 30 hunger strikes. In 1993, he starved himself in front of the Korean parliament to protest falling rice prices. Prior to that, in 1990, he attempted to disembowel himself outside the WTO office in Geneva, slicing into his guts with a dull blade in opposition to an agreement that would open Korea to rice imports for the first time. This was five years before the WTO was officially established, and nearly a decade before multinational trade agreements began receiving major scrutiny from a rising global protest movement.
At the time, Lee was attempting to revitalize his country’s domestic food production with Seoul Farm, an 80-acre agricultural experiment five years in the making. Working on the isolated, mountainous land where he was born, the university-educated Lee brought modern methods and technology to the small town of Jangsu in 1974, and with help from his wife and daughters built a working farm that also served as a teaching college. Students lived and toiled on Seoul Farm, learning techniques intended to propel Korea’s struggling farmers into the next century. In 1988, the project earned Lee a United Nations award for rural leadership. But as the WTO fought successfully to open Korea’s market to increasing agricultural imports, prices dropped, spelling disaster for the nation’s poor farmers.
Four years ago, Lee lost Seoul Farm in a foreclosure sale. Unable to compete with giant agribusiness corporations in the developed world, rural farmers like Lee have seen their children flee to take manufacturing jobs in the city. According to Reuters, the population of Jangsu has dropped by 50 percent since 1984. South Korea is now the fourth largest market for US agricultural exports.
"Human beings are in an endangered situation," Lee wrote in a statement that he distributed just before his death in CancÃºn. "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."
COMPLETE STORY IN MARCH/APRIL 2004 HIGH TIMES