The Korean Leap into the Future

15. 3. 2017

One of the poorest countries in the world became an economic superpower in two generations.

In December 2012 the Koreans elected Park Geun-hye for their president. She is the first woman to hold power in a country with a Confucian tradition. But the global imagination was electrified by the rapper Psy—his gallop Gangnam style captured a one billion strong audience. The phenomenon of Psy’s popularity could be downplayed as a passing fad. It will probably exit the global scene as quickly as it entered it. The problem is that the astonishing popularity of the Korean artist only to a small extent results from his personal charm and talent. He would not have won the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of Internet users and would not have been invited to the New York Times Square in order to entertain the audience during the New Year party if he did not have the power of his native culture and economy behind him.

The korean Wave

Psy and Gangnam Style are the culmination of the phenomenon called Hallyu (Korean wave), that is a triumphant march of popular culture from South Korea—first across Asia and now across the world. Korean music, cinema, television series and computer games are gaining recognition even in Japan, until recently an economic and cultural dominator in the Far East. These developments would not be so important if culture were an autonomous phenomenon rather than part of soft power. This term was coined by the American political scientist Joseph S. Nye, who claimed that cultural influence belongs to the system of power and politics.

The “Korean wave” was made possible by the earlier economic miracle. The bloody war of 1950–53 left only ruins and abject poverty in South Korea. The inhabitants of the South dreamed of reaching the standard of living enjoyed by their kin in the communist North, where industry and natural resources were concentrated. The per capita GDP below one hundred dollars placed South Korea among the poorest countries in the world. Relics of this poverty can still be seen in the streets—older people with horribly crooked legs remind us of the possible consequences of chronic undernourishment.

Today South Korea is number eleven in the world in terms of the GDP and the seventh largest industrial power. In the period when Poland, carried by the enthusiasm of the post-communist transition, was getting rid of the remnants of heavy industry, liquidating shipyards and other industrial plants, the Koreans went in the opposite direction. Somebody has to make ships, after all, the trick is to do it profitably.

It turned out that modernisation without liquidation is possible. Korean shipyards belong to the most competitive in the world. Just like the POSCO steelworks, serving not only the domestic demand but also the insatiable appetite of the fast developing China. And we have to remember that in South Korea molten steel started to flow as late as 1972, while Poland by then had boasted of a long metallurgic tradition. Now it is the Koreans who may be boastful—because of the actual achievements of their industry.

Gwangju—a Bloody Gdańsk

The founding myth of today’s Poland is the Solidarity revolt in 1980. In its most radical and patriotic version it makes the Poles believe that by inciting a bloodless national uprising in August 1980 in Gdańsk they led to the downfall of communism and the Soviet Union, incidentally also providing an example for other enslaved societies of Central Europe. Few people know that the Koreans had a similar experience then—the workers’ uprising in Gwangju in May 1980.

The mass revolt was speedily and bloodily suppressed by the new dictator, Chon Doo Hwan. Hundreds of people died but the memory of the massacre was an important factor mobilising the struggle for democratisation. The memory of Gwangju as well as of the whole period of authoritarian rule is still vivid, it divides the Korean society and has an impact on current politics.

It was clearly visible during the last presidential elections. Mrs Park Geung-hye, former leader of the conservative party Saenuri, is a daughter of General Park Chung-Hee, who took power after a coup in 1962. It was him who started the process of authoritarian modernisation of the country, brutally but successfully pulling it out of poverty. During the election campaign Park Geung-hye apologised for the times of the dictatorship. After the death of her mother, killed in 1974 in an assassination attempt organised by North Korean special troupers, she officially assumed the role of the First Lady and accompanied her father in fulfilling his duties as head of state. She learned then to think in terms of raison d’état, which she proved in 1979, when General Park was murdered by his intelligence chief. Her first reaction to her father’s death was to ask, “Is the border safe?” As we know, South Korea has only one neighbour.

The Koreans started the project of democratisation in a similar period that Central Europe did. The first relatively democratic elections were held in 1987 and the next poll was fully democratic. In contrast to the Central European societies the Koreans did not go for a parliamentary model of government but decided on a presidential system, similar to the French or American one. But they limited the presidential mandate to one five-year term. So they placed an emphasis on the efficiency of the executive but with a checking mechanism in place.

From Chaebols to Cybersport

The Asian crisis of 1997 revealed the weaknesses of the system inherited from the corrupt dictatorship. Korea had to ask the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. The great purge, with one of the largest chaebols, Daewoo, among its victims, healed the structure of the economy.

Koreans treated the threat as a chance for growth. In just a few years they became one of the most internet-based societies in the world. One aspect of this futuristic leap is computer games. Thanks to the broad band transmission young Koreans—an excellently educated boom generation— discovered that a team game in the net was much more interesting and fun than a lonely struggle with a PC. The new passion conquered the country, becoming the basis for the development of cybersport, which quickly gained official recognition and support. The cybersport league captivates hundreds of thousands of fans.

It soon turned out that joint play in the net not only releases the passions but also builds social capital. Virtual communities showed their real power in 2002, during the Football World Championship held in Japan and Korea.The successes of the “Red Devils,” that is the national team, excited emotions and the Internet proved to be an important mechanism of mobilisation. Millions of people took to the streets of Seul to watch the matches together and celebrate the victories.

A few months later this social capital was utilised by Roh Moo Hyun. The political and media establishment predicted that the candidate who did not belong to that establishment and who was a lawyer involved in defending student activists in the era of dictatorship would stand no chance. But he was able to rally the young generation behind him and won the elections. Full mobilisation would not be possible without such innovations as OhMyNews, that is a civic journalism news service providing information which was constantly updated and independent from the main-stream media.

Under the rule of Roh Moo Hyun Korea coped well with the crisis and emerged from it with a programme for the next decade. The programme was implemented despite political meanders and dramas (after his term finished, Roh committed suicide, “saving face” against accusations of corruption). In 2012 Samsung dethroned Nokia, becoming the largest producer of mobile phones. More importantly, it is also the leading—alongside with Apple—player on the market of smartphones and tablets and one of the most valuable brands in the world. Among successes less known to the wider public one should mention the contract for the construction of nuclear reactors in Abu Dhabi. The French Areva was certain of winning the tender but it had to swallow the bitter pill: 20 billion dollars will be pocketed by a Korean energy consortium.

Challenges and Threats

Another challenge was the crisis in 2008, which resulted in a recession and significant devaluation of the won (47% down in relation to the yen). But the economy soon recovered, the 3% unemployment rate is not a problem and the 2% growth, although much less impressive than before, is still enviable.

Also this time the Koreans did not yield to the temptation of preserving the status quo but made a leap into the future. The former president, Lee Myung Bak, in 2008 presented a vision of the country’s development for the next 50 years. The first stage of its execution is strategy “577,” the essence of which is contained in the figures. 5—this is the percentage of the GDP which Korea is to invest in research and development (starting from 2012) to be able to join the group of 7 world powers in science and technology and become the leader in 7 key areas of technology. The strategic aim is to preserve the competitiveness of traditional industries and create new markets on the basis of innovative, green technologies.

Will the Koreans be successful in their yet another modernising leap? Their country, just like Poland and other Central European societies, is getting older fast. The problem of labour shortage is to be solved by technologies—even today the Korean economy is leading the world in the use of robots.

Social problems will be more difficult to solve. The breathtaking speed of development has led to the demise of the extended family, until recently the main foundation of social order. It raises problems with care for the elderly. Korean pensioners belong to the poorest in the OECD countries. When they cannot count on help from their children, their fate is often miserable. The suicide rate in the 65 plus age group is the highest in the OECD.

And as for the young Koreans, they find it hard to cope with the educational pressure. They achieve the best academic results in the world, just as the young Fins, but the cost is much higher. Korean employees spend 2193 hours a year in work, while the OECD average is 1749. They could work much shorter hours if they raised their productivity to the level of the French or the Germans.

Low productivity is one of the most important challenges the Koreans are faced with. Perhaps they will use it as an opportunity for another leap into the future.

Edwin Bendyk

is the president of the Batory Foundation in Warsaw, a commentator for the Polityka weekly, and the author of numerous books, the latest of which is W Polsce, czyli wszędzie. Rzecz o upadku i przyszłości świata [In Poland, or Everywhere. On the Collapse and Future of the World] (2020).

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