To enter Yeo Chan-dong’s farm, workers must put on a white lab coat and cap and then pass through an air shower. Inside, shelves of green vegetables are in various stages of growth, under blue and red LED lights that combine to give the space a purple glow. On a wall near the entrance is a screen that states the room’s temperature (24.3), humidity (78.5%), CO2 level (701 ppm), as well as the pH and nutrient solution levels.

The plants grow in water, not soil, meaning that there is no dirt to sully the space’s gleaming surfaces. They absorb water through their roots, so they don’t need to be sprayed. Because the farm is indoors and sealed off from insects, no pesticides are used, meaning visitors can pluck and eat the greens right off the plant. The lettuce is crisp, with a slightly buttery flavor.

Fifty-one kilograms of greens come out of this operation per day, ending up in salads, sandwiches, and smoothies. Yeo, who wears black slacks and a crisp white dress shirt, with spotless eyeglasses and neatly combed hair, claims that this farm, a space smaller than 400 square meters, can produce 40 times more than conventional agricultural land.

Located in Sangdo Station on Seoul’s subway system, the farm is the first one out of five in the city’s metro stations, the result of cooperation between the city government and Farm8, a private company that develops smart farm technology and sells the produce. Amid rising interest in smart farming, Farm8 brought in $47.8 million (54 billion South Korean won) in 2020, up from $7.4 million in 2010.

“We want to change the perception of farming,” said Lee Hwang-myung, senior manager of the smart farm project at Seoul Metro. “We want to encourage people to see agriculture as something not of the past but as part of the future.”

These smart farms are the most visible part of a national push for farming that relies more on technology and less on human labor. For decades, the South Korean government has sought to address the demographic challenges caused by young people moving en masse from rural areas to seek white-collar work in cities. This is a common problem in developed countries, and in South Korea’s case, it has left farmland depopulated, and farmers reliant on migrant workers brought in from Southeast Asia, who often work more 10-15 hours a day, six days a week, for less than $1,600 a month.

These abysmal conditions have suddenly become a topic of national conversation since the tragic death of a Cambodian migrant farmworker last December. The government, and some farmers, see smart farming as a solution, pumping millions into the sector in the wake of the tragedy. But skeptics argue that the technology needed is prohibitively expensive for most farmers, and would require accepting capital from large corporations. This, says, Yang Seung-ryong, a professor in the Department of Food and Resource Economics at Korea University, “inevitably leads to scale and concentration of production, which causes the collapse of small farming.” Moreover, even if these technologies were successfully implemented, farmers aren’t convinced it would help them compete with cheap imports from abroad.

Almost all Korean meals are accompanied by side dishes called banchan, which consist of fresh or fermented vegetables, often cabbage, cucumbers or mushrooms. Korean barbecue relies on lettuce, sesame, and kale leaves as wraps for grilled meat. Those staples mostly come not from high-tech operations like the one helmed by Yeo, but from threadbare farms in places like Pocheon, a town a 90-minute drive northeast of the capital. 

“This is the bottom of the food chain,” said Kim Dal-sung, a pastor who runs a support center for migrant workers on farms in the area. The land around Pocheon is a flat expanse of greenhouses and dirt roads, cut off to the north by a range of mountains. To the south, a network of highways connects the farms to Seoul. The air smells of freshly turned earth and chemical fertilizer. 

Since the early 1990s, South Korea has imported people from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia to work in places like this, filling a gap in the unskilled and semi-skilled labor force left by locals migrating to the cities.

Advocates have compared the terms of migrant workers’ employment, with a dash of hyperbole, to indentured servitude. Under the conditions of their visas, workers may not change workplaces without their employer’s permission, and they need their employer’s approval in order to be eligible for a visa extension. These terms leave laborers vulnerable to dangerous conditions or abuses, such as wage theft. Due to the long hours and isolation of many farms, laborers usually reside on the sites where they work, often in flimsy structures that lack basic amenities. 

“These workers work every day growing the food that appears on our plates every day. Their blood and tears go into that food,” Kim told Rest of World.

Pocheon made national headlines in December when, on the evening of December 20, a 27-year-old farm laborer from Cambodia went to sleep after another long work day. The heating in the makeshift building where she lived had broken two days earlier, leaving just thin walls insulated with styrofoam and wrapped in black tarpaulin between her and temperatures that dipped to minus 13 degrees Celsius.

The following morning, Sokkeng was found dead, apparently having frozen to death.

In the subsequent days, police issued a statement saying that results of an autopsy indicated that Sokkeng had died of liver cirrhosis. Lee Jae-myung, the governor of the province where Pocheon is located, wrote on his Facebook page that even if Sokkeng hadn’t frozen, her death was nevertheless a result of her work: “She lived in a greenhouse and had no opportunity to seek treatment or recover.”

Sokkeng had been in South Korea since 2016, and was planning to return home to Cambodia within three weeks, according to Ryu Ho-jeong, a prominent left-wing lawmaker who visited the site where Sokkeng lived. “She returned to her hometown as a handful of ashes,” Ryu wrote in a statement, adding, “Migrant workers like her have no choice but to work in dangerous conditions.”

Pocheon Police Station and the Cambodian Embassy in Seoul both declined to comment or disclose details on the case. 

Sokkeng’s death sparked a national discussion on the working conditions for the thousands of migrants who come to South Korea to work on farms — jobs South Koreans have tended to shun. Activists seized the momentum to effect changes they had been seeking for decades. In response to the public outcry, the provincial government conducted an investigation in early January and found that 38% of farm workers lived in greenhouses like the one Sokkeng died in. 

“Her young age and tragic death in the plastic greenhouse impacted people’s hearts really deeply,” said Jeong Young-sup, a labor organizer who has worked with migrants in South Korea for more than a decade. “It made people ask, ‘how could a migrant worker die in a greenhouse in the cold winter?’ ‘is this 21st century Korea?’, ‘are migrant workers not human beings?’”

“These workers work every day growing the food that appears on our plates every day. Their blood and tears go into that food.”

The employment ministry quickly announced that it was no longer allowed to house laborers in greenhouses, and farmers who make their workers stay in unsafe accommodation would be banned from hiring. The ministry also decreed that workers can refuse to work and demand reassignment to another farm if they are dissatisfied with on-site housing. Farmers pushed back, arguing that they couldn’t afford to upgrade existing buildings, and that agricultural law prohibited them from constructing new buildings on land allocated for farming.

“Government officials’ priorities are the rights of foreign workers and Korea’s image to the outside world, but on the ground, we don’t have time for all that,” Seo Yong-seok, vice president of the Korean Advanced Farmers Federation, told Rest of World. “Of course, Sokkeng’s death is a tragedy, but it’s rather impractical to suddenly draw a rigid line between what’s legal and what’s illegal. It’s just armchair policy,” Seo said.

As labor advocates, farmers and the government tussled over how to balance competing interests, South Korea’s ICT ministry announced a plan to invest more than $350 million in smart farm technology over the next six years.

The ministry didn’t directly link its plan with the furore over Sokkeng’s death, but observers say the two events must be connected.

The ministry plans to set up four government-run smart farms this year, two in June and two in December. It also has expressed interest in expanding the use of technology that would allow farmers to remotely monitor and control conditions in greenhouses, thereby reducing the need for human labor. 

Under such systems, data is stored in real time, and analyzed to determine optimal growing conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and nutrient levels. As a longer-term goal, the ministry also mentioned the development of robotic technology that would complete labor-intensive tasks, such as sowing and harvesting, allowing for fully-automated farms.

Farm8 has developed such a farm, with a price tag of around $68,400 (77 million won). For lower budgets, the company offers an entry-level greenhouse.

Proponents of smart farming say it offers a chance for South Korean farmers to pivot to a more profitable model that emphasizes quality over affordability. “With agricultural products being imported from overseas, the lives of Korean farmers have gotten really difficult, because they can’t compete on price,” said Park Young-doo, a professor of plant molecular biology at Kyunghee University in Seoul. “To solve this, we need to reduce labor and make competitive products. Smart farming can accomplish that by using less labor to grow competitive products.”

In countries with aging populations, this kind of technology has been presented as a kind of panacea for agriculture. It promises resilience to climate change, reduced carbon emissions from transportation and fertilizer, less waste and higher quality. But it is expensive, and its implementation can be hard. In a country like South Korea, whose mountainous topography means that most farms are small, precision agriculture could have limited benefits, and be out of the financial reach of most farmers.

Agriculture, land, food and politics are inextricably linked, in South Korea as in many other countries. The government has customarily been very supportive of farmers. According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, out of 37 member states surveyed, South Korea was second only to Norway and Iceland in the extent of its support for farmers.

However, while the government operates model smart farms across the country where farmers can learn how precision agriculture works, farmers looking to transition to smart farming have to purchase the expensive equipment themselves.

In December, the agriculture ministry produced a slick video on smart farming called “A Newly Written Story.” The video tells the tale of a forlorn young woman burdened with caring for hundreds of pigs while her elders skip off on a shopping trip. Without getting a speck of dirt on her hands, she uses her smartphone to oversee the perfect growth of strawberries that she then sells in a nearby market. The video currently has nearly 9 million views on YouTube.

What the video doesn’t show is how the story’s protagonist, or any farmer, could come up with the funds to implement the system, or how even with precision agriculture, she managed the delicate, labor-intensive work of picking, packaging and transporting the strawberries. 

Indeed, South Korea’s commercial heavyweights, such as Samsung and telecommunications giant KT Corporation, are developing smart farm technology. Corporate conglomerates, called chaebol, are a legacy of South Korea’s state-led industrialization following the 1950–1953 Korean War. The government supported flagship companies like Samsung and Hyundai, with the goal of driving growth and developing products that could compete internationally. Today, those companies yield unrivalled clout in the economy, and their size and reach could mean that as agriculture comes to rely more on technology, the spread of smart farming could concentrate gains in a few powerful firms and end up further alienating the farmers the government wants to help.   

In a statement, the Korea Peasants League described smart farming as a “money-eating hippo” that will “kill small and medium-sized farms while only fattening big corporations.”

This growing emphasis on technology may also have the unintended effect of distancing farmers from something rural communities have long treasured: intimate familiarity with their land. “At one level, then, techniques like precision agriculture, through dashboards, graphs, and numbers, promise to make users as knowledgeable about their land, crops and livestock as anyone can be,” said Michael Carolan, a professor at Colorado State University and author of “The Real Cost of Cheap Food.”

“At another level, it is important to realize that this local knowledge differs from that acquired through other means, such as knowledge about how rich, organic soil is supposed to smell, feel and taste.”

Solutions based on advanced technology seem a distant prospect on the muddy plains of Pocheon. Kim, the labor activist, says most farmers here are barely hanging on. “These farmers already have all the machines they can afford,” he said. “They don’t have the capital to invest in some more sophisticated system.”

What the farmers need at the moment is more migrant labor. Government data showed that as of February only 1,384 out of 9,400 agricultural and fishing workers the country had aimed to import had arrived, a consequence of travel disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Farmers’ groups successfully argued that this meant they cannot afford to set up new accommodation for their workers, and the prohibition on use of greenhouses as worker dormitories has been deferred until September.

Kim, 66, speaks slowly while clearly enunciating each syllable, intermittently interjecting English words — a habit he has picked up from assisting migrants new to the country and still learning the local language. In the early 1980s, a time when South Korea was ruled by a military dictator and laborers had few legal protections, he worked in a factory in Seoul, during which time a bout of tuberculosis left him with severely diminished capacity in one lung. Today he must pause regularly to catch his breath while talking, and take extreme caution to avoid COVID-19, never removing his mask while in public and keeping a distance of at least two meters when conversing with anyone.

“The terrible working environment that I and others suffered through decades ago, now our country is forcing people who come here from other countries to work in that kind of environment.”

“The terrible working environment that I and others suffered through decades ago, now our country is forcing people who come here from other countries to work in that kind of environment,” Kim said.

Kim says the regulatory changes implemented after Sokkeng’s death had been “unimaginable” before, but that on the ground in Pocheon, workers are still stuck in conditions he likens to slavery. 

On the premises of one workers’ dormitory was an outdoor toilet — a hole dug into the ground, covered with wooden planks and surrounded by a wall of black tarpaulin. In the early evening, an animated conversation was audible from outside a nearby structure where the workers live. Two young women answered a knock on the door and said that they had arrived in South Korea from Cambodia less than a year ago. Their responses to questions about their work and living conditions were simply: “It’s OK.” They declined to chat any further, saying that they soon had to return to work. 

Kim says that, in the months following Sokkeng’s death, as he gave media interviews and acted as a guide for politicians and activists seeking a glimpse at farming in Pocheon, he has become persona non grata on these farms. He claims that farmers have ordered workers to avoid interacting with him. On an afternoon drive throughout the area, farmers cast him icy glares while rolling by on tractors. 

In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, the average income of farming households in South Korea was around $36,500 (41.18 million won). That year, profits from farming fell 20% due to increased expenses. At markets and grocery stores, South Koreans already pay some of the highest prices for groceries in Asia, meaning farmers have little room to increase prices to improve their margins, due to competition with cheap imports from China and Southeast Asia. And even as farmers’ incomes wane, the prices of agricultural goods are rising, putting increased strain on household budgets.

Kim said he sympathizes with the farmers, who are also victims. “The deadly conditions on these farms aren’t the fault of individual farmers. Exploitation is built into the structure of our country’s economy,” he said. “A few corporate conglomerates control so much, leaving everyone else to compete for whatever scraps remain. That means people like these farmers don’t have much choice. They do what they have to do to survive.”