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Famine and rice supply during the Korean Empire

  • The Review of Korean History
  • 2017, (128), pp.359-430
  • Publisher : The Historical Society Of Korea
  • Research Area : Humanities > History

Kisung Kim 1

1

Accredited

ABSTRACT

While July 1894 marked the beginning of tax payment in money, there were still concerns of coin crunch(錢荒) and grain crunch(穀荒). Yoo Gil Joon(兪吉濬) argued that commerce could prevent coin crunch and grain crunch and strengthen the nation, supporting the tax payment in money. Newspapers, the Japanese Minister to Korea(駐韓日本公使) as well as the Japanese merchants(日商) in the open port areas argued that the development of commerce would not cause issues with rice supply and demand. However, the actual occurrence of the famine saw different movements in the rice markets. Famine ensued around the Gyeonggi region in 1897, which saw rice responding very sensitively to price. The rise in rice prices in Japan saw large volumes of rice exports to Japan, despite worries of rice shortages in Korea. It was when the rice prices in Japan fell when rice began to flow into regions with rice shortages. When the rice prices at Incheon rose quickly, rice was imported from overseas. However, domestic and foreign merchants who hoarded rice carefully watched the rice markets, controlling sales to ensure higher prices. Then, with the Gyeongin region seeing rice shortage, Japanese merchants led a large-scale speculation in rice, expecting rice prices to rise even further. This saw a rise in the rice prices in Incheon, with the rice prices in surrounding regions such as Seoul also rising. Unlike the predictions, the rice market had turned into a market of speculation, causing large-scale confusion in prices. When concerns on rice supply spread with the famine of 1897, the government of the Korean Empire sought to enforce the Grain Export Prohibition(防穀令). However, these attempts was interrupted with strong dissent from the Japanese Minister to Korea, and simply led to removal of import taxes on rice. At the same time, the Ministry of Finance(度支部) sent down dispatched officiers(派員) to each region, attempting to supply rice to Seoul through the policy of transferring local tax to third parties(ex. merchants) for purchasing grains in large quantity(外劃貿米). These attempts were generally unsuccessful. There was another large-scale famine in 1901. Gyeongin region was again at the centre of the famine, with Jeonbuk also negatively impacted. However, during this time, the rice prices did not jump as they did in 1898, and rice tended to flow into Incheon rather than being exported to Japan. This was because 1901 was a good year for rice crops in Japan, lowering the rice prices, which then led to lower exports. Moreover, the Grain Export Prohibition led to rice remaining in Korea during August to October, period of high rice prices in Japan; as such, there were no rice shortages and rice price hikes prior to the 1902 harvest. After the third quarter of 1901, the large-scale imports of Annam rice also contributed to the stabilization of rice prices. However, as most of the domestic rice volumes were focused in Incheon, rice shortages occurred in Gunsan and neighboring areas; as such, rice prices shot up after May 1902 in these regions. These were the limitations of government policies and trade structures that focused on the Gyeongin regions. When famine hit in 1901, the government of the Korean Empire put the Grain Export Prohibition in place between August 25 to November 15. The Grain Export Prohibition ceased exports of rice to Japan. However, indications of the Grain Export Prohibition often spurred exports depending on region, and there were some regions where rice prices did not fall after the Grain Export Prohibition was in place. Particularly, the Grain Export Prohibition was more likely to shock the grain markets, rather than stabilizing them. Next, large-scale imports of Annam rice, spearheaded by Naejangwon, supplemented the shortages of domestic rice, which proved to be effective. However, these exports were made without accurately identifying demand and import volumes which then led to over-importing; the large outflow of yen used to pay for the imports led to drop in the value of baekdonghwa(白銅貨) (A nickel coin use in the Korean Empire). Moreover, fixed prices due to poverty aid(救恤) caused confusion in rice prices. Lastly, the policy of transferring local tax to third parties(ex. merchants) for purchasing grains in large quantity(外劃貿米) was utilized to secure rice. This was in response to the need for merchandise on spot, which was constantly emphasized since tax payments in money. However, these attempts were also criticized as being misleading for regional rice markets, and for exchanging the pains felt by citizens of Seoul with that felt by citizens in rural regions. After the Gabo Reform of 1894, the rice markets saw an uptick of price disturbances from speculation. This was a confusing phenomenon for not only the Korean government and its citizens, but as well as merchants. At the same time, Koreans began to realize the risks that could be brought by freedom in markets. However, in the capitalist world system of the time, it was impossible for the Korean government to temporarily restrict the free markets. As such, the government focused on temporary interventions to stabilize rice prices. These interventions resulted in a gradual building of a cycle of rice price disturbances and then temporary market interventions for stabilization.

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