Ansung, South Korea -- I'm strolling up a hill in the tiny mountain village of Deok-bong-san when my friend and translator, Denise, greets She-ik Oh, whom she introduces as a member of the local farmers' organization. He bows to me and flashes a huge grin, but knows enough English to insist that a key word be translated just right. "I am a peasant, not a farmer," he says in Korean.
"Farmers work for money. Peasants work because they love the land and are tied to it."
That's about as good an introduction as anyone can get to the mood and values behind both the domestic and geopolitics of South Korea, the tiny peninsula and "Asian tiger" that's become one of the world's top 10 economies.
I was in South Korea late in October when it became a real international hot spot after North Korea tested its ability to make atomic explosives, thereby upsetting the entire balance-of-power system in Asia. But the external threat that seemed to make South Koreans most nervous came not from North Korea but from the United States.
About an hour's train ride from the peasant village I'm visiting, in the capital city of Seoul, the right-of-centre government is resisting U.S. pressure to punish North Korea for its nuclear bomb tests by ending what's known as the "sunshine" policy of dialogue and economic exchange.
A few hours south by airplane is Honeymoon Island, where about 10,000 students and farmers are protesting U.S. and Korean negotiations on another round of talks on a U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement that's widely expected to drive Korean agriculture into bankruptcy.
Denise, She-ik and I finish the short walk to the village restaurant to meet other members of the local peasants' and farmers' league. We leave our shoes at the door and walk to a private room furnished with a long table with short legs, very close to the floor.
Panic and dread overtake me. My inner Westerner, raised in a chair-based culture, grimaces at sitting cross-legged on the floor as I prepare to rise to the occasion of warm and gracious Asian hospitality while smothering the pain in my back and tight hips.
Without shoes and chairs to create extra layers of separation between humans and their environment, I will meet my new friends on a common level, in contact with the earth and its energy. We will share food that's laid out for everyone at the table, instead of each person getting an individual serving delivered on their own plate.
My mind tries to stretch my body's consciousness and ligaments, recalling that clothing, furniture, body placement and plates express Korea's distinctive food culture.
I jump at the chance to stand up and shake hands with each member of the local farm and peasant league who joins us. After a minute or two of chatting, the president of the local league asks how old I am. It's a little early in the relationship to ask that, I think. Then a round of "farmers' wine," a delicious milk-like drink that farmers enjoy at lunch, claiming it gives them extra energy, is poured. Everyone pours a drink for someone else, not themselves a nice touch of togetherness, I think.
Then I notice that anyone pouring my drink uses two hands instead of one, a mark of respect for the person whom everyone now knows is the oldest at the table. Courtesy, culture and community saturate every element of Korean meals.
Korean foods are destined to become the model of the eco-superfoods of the coming century. Almost every dish embodies high-nutrient, low-calorie goodness, which explains why I saw not one obese person during a nine-day tour of Korea's cities and countryside.
Most dishes also tell of a food system that is as close to nature as it is to culture. At the centre of the table, which everyone can reach with chopsticks, there's one dish of pork, commonly raised on food and farm scraps rather than grains, and several dishes of fish, shellfish and seaweed from the ocean, an hour's drive away.
A full range of five to 10 veggie servings abounds: tofu, sweet potato, cucumber, mushrooms, several varieties of kimchee (cabbage fermented with red chili peppers and garlic), lettuce, collards and other green leaves used as wraps, miso, carrots and more. Many dishes use parts of a plant that would be wasted in North America leaves of squash used as wraps, or persimmon leaves in tea, for example.
Though Korea is ultra-modern in its technology, education, clothing, entertainment and politics, food still expresses traditions that predate mechanization, long-haul transport, processing, packaging, the microwaving of prepared foods and eating alone.
Meat is not the centre of the meal. Rice is. We each have our own silver bowl of it, and Denise discreetly elbows me to make sure I finish mine and sing its praises. Rice is a specialty of the area, in a country where it is treated as a sacramental staple used in rice wine, rice cakes and an after-dinner drink of sweet rice water left after the cooking, as well as eaten in its own bowl at every meal.
After lunch we stroll uphill to the home of the wealthiest farmer in the village, who raises over 20 cows (they don't raise steers as in North America and Europe) for meat. I brace my body again to sit on the floor, where we sip sweet pine-leaf tea fermented in honey, with a few pine nuts tossed in. The pines that cover Korea's mountain ranges are symbols of permanence, and indeed, little disturbs them, since few homes or buildings other than Buddhist temples have invaded them.
Like many iconic Korean foods ginseng and green tea are best known pine tea is foraged from the mountain wilds that account for over two-thirds of Korea's landscape. This is the style of agriculture and food that has nourished Korea through the breakneck speed of its industrialization over the last 50 years, making it a centre of textile, auto and electronics production as well as of higher education.
In December, when Korean and U.S. free trade talks go into their third round, this style of peasant agriculture and folk food faces off against industrial agriculture and manufactured junk food. The U.S. government is keen to sell into Asia, where consumer demand is growing at about 7 per cent a year, more than twice the rate in the Western world.
Mass-produced grains are one of a few exports where the Yanks still command some competitive advantage, a humbling reality for an "advanced, western economy." Trade deals in Asia offer another hedge against the future. Anyone who's tracked the tobacco industry knows how it shifted its sights to Asia. The same business model applies to junk food manufacturers, who likewise need fresh and unprepared markets to conquer.
American trade pressures reflect a tectonic shift in U.S. economics that will have as great an impact on Asia as North Korea's rattling of nuclear weapons.