Organized Panel Session
Where should we locate the origins of modern Korea’s environmental problems? Many assume that environmental issues emerged in the 1960s as urban problems when heavy industrialization visibly started to pollute air and water. My paper, however, traces the origins of environmental issues in the late nineteenth century, when Chosŏn Korea joined transnational, top-down drives to modernize its agriculture. Vigorous modernization efforts in agricultural food production left ecological footprint on the Korean peninsula, as diverse figures and groups from the United States and Japan introduced non-native species and new systems of knowledge and practice, which were themselves part of new agricultural modernization projects in their countries. I am in the middle of research identifying how this changed views of nature in Korea and what new approaches to the non-human world developed. My presentation is a part of a larger project, an environmental history of modern Korea. Going beyond the simplistic binary of the exploitative cities (and industrialists) vs. exploited agrarian areas (and farmers), my project aims to illuminate how power, the ecological environment, and agricultural practices shaped each other in the late nineteenth century in a way that set the stage for what came to be identified as environmental problems since the 1960s. This presentation therefore places the origins of Korean environmental problems in the late nineteenth-century agricultural modernization, arguing that we need to spatially re-conceptualize “environmental problems” to shift a focus from industrialization and cities to agriculture and the agrarian area in writing a critical environmental history.