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Korea - A Model of Development for Other Nations?

Klaudia Callister (2019-06-28)

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Quite frankly it is a very challenging undertaking to pen the proper words that best describe the transitions Korea has gone through these past thirty years. During my time in Korea between 1978 and 1981, I traveled extensively to every corner of the country. Quite likely I have seen more of Korea than most Koreans. But I cannot even begin to recognize Yonhi-dong where my family and I lived during that earlier time - the magnificent Korean Gate standing on the property of the school my children attended is the only part of the school that remains unchanged -the office where I worked in Kwanghwamun bears little resemblance to the cold dusty spaces we occupied thirty years ago - no longer is there a young boy going through the offices looking for shoes to shine for the few peck won needed for his daily meal - the yakultlady doesn't seem to make the same rounds as she did before - the tabang in the basement of our offices gave way empty space - the Korean War widowed ggot lady is no longer selling flowers at the corner in the cold of winter to earn money to care for her children and ensure their education and her prayer of hope for their better life [both children graduated from university because of her perseverance] -the over-packed buses, belching smoke, no longer rattle along the roads, both in need of repair; its customers now ride on computer controlled subways and clean buses unmindful of the earlier days - there is now a stream flowing through the center of Seoul that was previously used as a road with a second elevated highway running above when I lived in Seoul - the wonderful Kyongbokgung, for years hidden behind the Japanese-built government buildings that have now disappeared, opening up a spectacular display of breathtaking Korean architecture that I was never able to experience when I lived in Seoul thirty years ago. Quite frankly, it is difficult for these old eyes to adjust to the Korea that unfolds before me today.

It almost feels as if one woke one day from a dream and saw a different country materializing magically in front of him. Of course, it is actually the result of the vision of Korean national leaders, the hard work of government planners in harmony with the private sector [most of the time] and the indomitable will of the people of Korea that brought the magnificent changes we see today.

I remember my own youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s - yes, a long time ago. Life seemed so much simpler then. The pace was slower - people weren't in such a hurry, the street cars seemed to move the population around the city quite nicely and efficiently - families were rooted in their communities and not given to moving every few years as is the case today - children were a blessing to be nurtured and loved rather than shuttled off to daycare centers so their parents could live the "American Dream." Our elected officials felt a greater responsibility and accountability to their constituencies, or so it seemed. Public schools were places of education where meeting standards dictated moving ahead from one year to the next rather than the social adjustment concerns that so occupy United States' school systems today. Entire careers were more likely spent in a single company rather than the constant changes that are experienced today because back then there existed a greater sense of loyalty from both employer and employee. In California we now run billion dollar deficits because of the excesses of government spending that seemingly has no controls whatsoever. Every special interest is met with a handout. Even those who reach the United States illegally are entitled to more than those who are diligently working to take care of their families and themselves.

A country's core is deeply affected when fundamental values are so easily altered to reflect the latest trend sweeping across a nation. That seems to be the case in the United States over the past several years. Our political leaders, in both parties, seem bent on change without substantive insight on how our society will be affected.

During our President's recent visit to Africa, we heard many comparisons in speeches and in the press about development progress. It was commonplace to read political commentaries that compared the Growth Domestic Product [GDP] of Korea and Kenya in the 1960s to today. The comparisons are staggering in both cases.

Kenya, where I lived several times in the 1980s, is a country that should easily be able to feed its citizens and provide job opportunities for its ever expanding population. It has not been able to do either in the 50 years since its independence. To the contrary, its leaders have squandered natural resources, failed in providing basic education to its citizens, allowed tribalism to separate peoples rather than seeking ways to draw people together and allowed a culture of corruption to permeate every facet of society as an acceptable alternative to responsible governance. Their leaders through the years have squandered treasuries to feed their never ending avarice and unquenchable thirst for money and power with little complaint and certainly no penalties beyond the diplomatic rhetoric from their development partners.

On the other hand, Korea's GDP growth has been phenomenal on any economic measuring scale. During the same period, it moved from an impoverished country completely dependent on assistance programs to take care of the basic needs of its population to one that produces quality products used in homes and offices and highways around the world. Its people enjoy a level of prosperity that goes beyond the wildest imaginations of Koreans just one generation ago. To be sure, there are challenges being faced in Korea to maintain its continued economic growth - similar challenges that are being faced by countries around the world.

The GDP Per Capita in Kenya in 1950 was $947 while Korea was at $876. Today the GDP Per Capita for Kenya stands at approximately $857 compared to Korea's staggering $19,505 (Source: IMF World Economic Database October 2009). Those simple statistics eloquently speak volumes to the substantive failures and accomplishments of both countries.

However statistics like these do not give us a proper perspective about the heart of a country and its people. It does serve the purpose of comparing levels of relative development that the United Nations and World Bank use to guide their policies and allocation of resources. But these institutions and others like them seem unwilling to address the fundamental needs of people in the development of nation states. Rather they seem more intent on satisfying the appetites of despots who are accountable to no one and ferret away a percentage of the largess of the world donors into secret bank accounts around the world with impunity. The United Nations and its partners have shown over the years to be a perpetuator of the status quo. It uses the dire statistics from the so-called Third World to draw sympatric responses where substantive changes are simply not possible given the current state of governmental affairs in those countries.

World media outlets from time to time run pictures of desperate women and children without any hope to feed the guilt of the "haves" to do more. Yet those same media sources do little to inform about the facts that relate to why those women and 바카라사이트 children are so desperate. So we send our money and feel better for it.

We dare not offend; we dare not demand responsible leadership in those impoverished countries; we dare not express outrage at the senseless tragedy of men, women and children who were given no voice in building a better life but only suffered unspeakable pains of hunger as their bodies withered to frail skeletons awaiting death; we dare not expose the mindless killings of whole villages where war is a constant daily experience with no rational understanding of why. How can we tolerate the status quo in such circumstances?

But this is a paper about the Republic of Korea. The ranting about the United Nations, World Bank and other international funding organizations may seem out of place. But let's see if the next few pages might tie the two together.

The changes Korea has undergone over the past thirty years are remarkable on any measuring scale. But why was Korea so successful and Kenya seemingly left behind, along with a host of other nations around the globe? Is there anything unique in the Korean Experience from which others can learn?

The book, The Rush To Development, published in 1993,analyzed the development successes Korea had achieved. The author, a professor at Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Oregon, correctly argued that Korean economic advances were more the result of a highly controlled state planning mechanism that had little to do with free market economics. The professor went on to suggest that the repressive and unbalanced nature of South Korea's growth process, shows how the country is now facing serious economic and political difficulties. In 1993, all that may well have been true.

Academic studies of the type found in The Rush to Development seem to carry with them a built-in bias upon which the statistical facts support the premise of the author. I certainly lack the academic qualifications to challenge the assumptions of the author. However, I am comfortable in challenging studies that miss the core of a country. The fact of the matter is that Korea's GDP per capita grew from $8,220 in 1993 to an astounding $27,929 in 2008, more than a 240% +increase (Source:World Development Indicators database, World Bank,September 15, 2009). That is not to suggest the learned professor was wrong in his analysis. Rather it serves to underscore how severely flawed most writers are in tackling Korea. It should not come as a surprise because, quite frankly, Korea is one of the more complex nations in the world.

But what makes Korea so different? Is it merely the grouping of peoples unified in a single race and language that helped to propel their economic development that launched them onto the world stage? Perhaps it was merely the fact of a culture tied to Confucianism, Buddhism, Shamanism and Christian thoughts and values? Or was it perhaps more the circumstances that found Korea in the crosshairs between the major powers of the world at the conclusion of the Korean War hostilities that resulted in an infusion of significant financial and military aid? Or maybe it was the coincidence of a geographic location with its severe winters and scorching summers that simply moved the people forward? Or was it more simply the confluence of it all that made Korea what it is today?

Here is what I have come to conclude:

Nation building is greatly enhanced when leaders are able to clearly and effectively communicate a vision for their nation across economic and social spheres. As the Republic of Korea emerged from the Korean War, it had the advantage of one of the major stumbling blocks to real development on its side: ethnic unity combined with a single shared language. One need only look at the experiences of nations across Africa and Southeast Asia to see the challenges that retard nation building around the single issue of language and ethnic and racial diversity. Kenya boasts more than 40 tribes among its population with 62 spoken languages. The Kenyan experience is not unique among so-called third world nations. The same situation is found across much of Sub-Sahara Africa.

In the Republic of the Philippines, where lived from 1981 to 1984, its population is made up of eight different ethnic groups speaking 170 different languages of which 10 are considered major language groups - by any fair measurement it is a daunting task to bridge such a diverse group of peoples into a unified nation with shared nation building goals.

If language and ethnic unity are the foundation of a country then culture and religion are the fabric that binds the nation together. Buddhism and Christianity form the core of religion in Korea - but underlying each is the strong influence of Confucianism that runs deep into the life of Korea. Although Shamanism remains an influence in Korea, its impact is felt much less among its predominately urban population. The impact of religion needs to be clearly underscored in understanding nation development. The cultural and religious underpinnings of a nation provide the core values that are essential to a sustained economic development; it is the critical aspect that unites the country's population and provides the order for growth. Certainly Buddhism and Christianity are very distinct and separate belief systems. But for the purposes here, the important part in nation development is that "religious organizations" become a willing or unwitting partner in the development process. At the very least, they provide supplemental support to those forgotten in the initial implementation of nescient government programs in the areas of health, education and welfare while undergirding society at large with a unity of spirit - in most cases. Of course there are marked exceptions where political-religious spheres clash as is easily seen in the Middle East between Islam and Judaism and other parts of the world.

Confucianism's impact in the development of Korea shares an equally important role in Korea's development. Confucian thought and teachings brought to Korea the importance of education that stresses the moral development of the individual leading a respectable life - out of which those educated by such a system will bring those leanings to the governance of a nation with a foundation of moral virtue rather than repressive laws. In the case of Korea, this is another fundamental building block to its development successes.

Many would argue that Korea was simply "blessed" with an infusion of capital resources when hostilities of the Korean War ended. That, they would argue, is the genesis of Korea's economic development success. To a certain extent, that is not a false argument - but it is too simplistic an answer. Clearly, the United States, Germany, and other nations brought a huge influx of desperately needed capital to fuel the economic development of Korea. But there is a key difference in the way in which this largess was put to use in the case of Korea.

Many countries during the 1950s through the 1980s received massive amounts of financial aid from various governments and governmental organizations but without any clear plan for its use. In the case of Korea, the much maligned President Park, Chung-Hee, gathered the best Korean economic minds to develop a far reaching economic development plan for the country. While ruthless in many aspects of his Presidency, there is no denying his achievements in laying a very firm foundation for the economic development that resulted in the "Miracle of the Han." I have yet to find any hint of personal corruption by President Park or members of his immediate family - he was a consummate patriot - at times heavy handed, yes - but a patriot nonetheless.

Another aspect that is not given the due consideration it deserves on why Korea became such a huge economic success has to do with its geographic location. Simply stated Koreans have no choice but to work hard during the spring, summer and autumn months in order to survive through its often very harsh winters. Looking at economic development from that perspective one can begin to realize an indisputable trend: moving north and south from the equator one can see that the further one moves toward the North and South Poles the more often one sees economic successes with development aid resources.

But the truth of the matter is that the economic development successes enjoyed by the Republic of Korea are the result of the confluence of all the aforementioned. The fact of a single language and unified ethnic grouping coupled with sound moral education going back several hundred years had a fundamental impact on the foundations established to build the economic engine in Korea. Its geographic location also influenced its development strategy that took into consideration the harsh climate and the dependence on imports. A strong leader grabbed leadership of the country in the 1960s with a very clear vision of where the country had the capacity to go in its economic future utilizing the financial resources of its economic partners in an effective implementation of a well conceived Korean economic plan that fit the needs and priorities of Korea and Koreans.

It was not an economic plan mandated from the outside. This was a critical component. The leadership of the Republic of Korea well understood it sat between the two major super powers. As a result it knew that it had more leverage in decisions involving the allocation of scarce financial resources to its small country. As a result, it could stand more firmly on the accomplishment of plans that directly tied to its own priorities rather than those of some master planner sitting in New York or Geneva who had other ideas for the use of the funds. To its credit, the Republic held firm on its goals and objectives with staggering positive results enjoyed by Korea and Koreans.

I cannot avoid another aspect that was an essential but little known [outside of Korea] contributor to the economic successes of Korea. It is called Saemaul Undong. It is a unique program that other nations have tried and failed to emulate. To understand the meaning of the words is to understand the goals of the program. Sae means progressive renewal based on past experience - continually grow on your accomplishments. Maul means regional and social communities such as villages- Undong simply means "movement." Thus the meaning behind the Saemaul Undongideal can be summarized as follows:


Improving and changing our regional community into a better place to live a better life.

Creating a better life for my community and neighbors as well as myself

Achieving both spiritual and material well-being

Building a better place for ourselves and future generations.


This program engaged all levels of society in the development of the Republic. Once a village or an area became a part of the Saemaul Undong,they received a flag - every new completed activity brought with it a certificate and a banner to add to the flag. In the first year 335 sacks of cement were provided to 35,000 villages across the nation. General meetings among villagers decided on the most worthy project. In the second year another 500 sacks of cement and one ton of steel wire were supplied by the central government. Competition ensued among villages to see which village would receive the greatest recognition. Very soon the flags were overtaken by the banners testifying to the accomplishments of local citizens who volunteered their time and expertise to build a medical center or a school or a community center. Everyone became a partner in the development process of Korea as the central government concentrated on massive infrastructure projects that would allow private industry to build its factories and begin competing in world markets.

It is reminiscent of the early days in the establishment of towns in the western United States. In those days there were no taxes being collected from the people from their earnings. If a school was needed, the town folks volunteered their time and materials to build the school. So too, if a house or a barn was destroyed by fire or some other disaster, the town's people helped its neighbor in their time of need That helpful volunteer spirit seems to have been lost in the United States in the intervening years. We seem to have become too busy in our daily lives to be seriously concerned with our neighbors - now we would rather the government take care of it for us - until of course we begin to see the costs that are involved. Then we begin to grumble and complain. It sometimes feels like the heart of our country has been lost.

In the final episode of a recently completed Korean TV drama [yes, I watch them; I can't help myself] entitled, in English, "Brilliant Legacy,"["Chal Lan Han Yu San"], the grandmother is talking with her grandson about a mother's heart and love of her children. She tells him about two children who take the heart from their mother in order to sell it in the market for some money. As they are running into town, the child holding the heart stumbles and falls and the heart falls upon the ground. When the children rush to pick up the heart and brush off the dirt, the heart says to the children "Are you all right?" Even at the loss of her life, the mother's love never ends.

I worry sometimes about the "heart" of the United States - I do not mean in terms of the current political events in the United States. Rather my concern is the eroding of basic principles upon which our country was founded. There is too much gray in our society today and not enough black and white. By that I do not mean to imply we should not change with the times and adjust to the realities of advancements in society. But there must be some fundamental truths that provide the keystone of a society - those fundamental truths should not be yielded without serious discussion among the citizens of a country.

We are in the midst of such a discussion right now in the United States. As the discussion moves forward, I hope the core values of my country remain intact - that our leaders will have a long view on the implication of policies that will impact generations to come.

I had an interesting discussion with my eldest son not too long ago. We were talking about Korea and how the current generation has no real understanding or appreciation of what the earlier generation of Koreans went through so the current generation could enjoy the fruits of their efforts. I was sharing with him [for probably the 20thtime] the experiences my wife went through as a child growing up in Seoul. I was reminding him how Yongbok and her family were eating dinner on the evening of June 25, 1950 when a policeman burst through their front door yelling that the North Koreas were a mere mile north and coming south quickly. Yongbok and her two siblings, mother and father, left food on the table, grabbed a couple of personal belongings and rushed out the door. She walked for six days to a distant village where she and her family could take refuge. Along the way, she saw mutilated bodies, burned homes and withstood the fear of bombs exploding all around her. She had three surgeries during the war years and had to endure the cutting of her leg without the aid of even a local anesthesia - she was simply held down on the table by her parents and some nurses while her leg was cut open.

I was lamenting that it is too bad the current generation lacks any understanding of its past history - they seemingly live only in the present. But as the words came out another question immediately emerged: Why does the current generation need to "understand and appreciate" what the earlier generations experienced? Why should there be a concern about changing values in the United States or Korea - times change as do circumstances, so why's it important?

But it does not change our present reality to focus on what brought us to this point in time - the sacrifices of past generations, the difficulties they endured, or the threats experienced beyond their country's borders - rather it is instructive to ensure the succeeding generations realize what is enjoyed today came at a price paid for by a previous generations.

The Republic of Korea is now a full economic partner on the world stage. Its development successes are staggering. And to be fair, the United States, and the US Agency for International Development in particular, can share a sense of pride in the unique partnership that was forged in the developmental process of Korea. Millions of dollars were invested in the infrastructure of a country that had been left in rubble following the end of hostilities in the Korean War. It was an investment with an uncertain future; particularly in light of what was happening in other parts of the world with similar infusions of money in the development of other less developed countries.

It seems to me, however, that neither the United States nor other development partners were prepared for the stunning success experienced by Korea. Very quickly, the U.S. trade policy experts were clamoring to apply the brakes on the export engine that had been fueled by American dollars. Soon Congress joined in the call for trade restrictions on Korean exports and greater access to the Korean domestic market. Could it be that the United States and the other donor nations never really expected a return on their investment? Or if they did, had they considered how they would deal with that type of success? It seems to me there is every indication that the answer to both questions is a resounding "Yes."

But the case of the Republic of Korea is very unique. I am doubtful the Korean experience can be duplicated in the less developed nations of the world. Korea simply had too many factors coming together at once to not be a success. It is the spirited character of the Korean people that is the critical difference that is moving the country forward. That is not easily duplicated. But as Korea continues to prosper and expand its horizons around the world it must be cautious of possible consequences reaching into its core as a country.

I am mindful of the heart in the story told in the Korean drama: The "heart" of our countries is that sometimes illusive part that represents the character of who we are as a nation, what we believe to be fundamental rights and how we present ourselves on the world stage.

As of late, I have been hearing the heart of America asking "Are you all right?"

So the question for my Korean friends is what is the "heart" of Korea saying to you?

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