Saemaul Undong Sets Model for Developing Countries
By Andrei Lankov
If you ask a typical foreign resident of Korea whether he or she has ever heard of "Saemaul" (New Village, in Korean), the chances are that the name reminds him or her of a popular express train which connects major Korean cities. Few foreigners are aware that the train itself took its name from a major government-initiated campaign which changed the face of rural Korea in the 1970s. This campaign was known as "Saemaul Undong," literary meaning "New Village Movement."
President Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country with an iron fist in the years 1961 to 1979, had a mission to accomplish. He wanted to transform Korea, which in those times was just a dirt poor country, into a prosperous and successful nation - doing whatever it took to achieve this.
General Park believed in capitalism. But, contrary to the modern day neoliberal economic orthodoxy, he also believed in state intervention and guidance.
The first development programs, launched just after 1961, put an emphasis on industry. But in the early 1970s, Park and his administration "noticed" the Korean village. In spite of considerable success in industrial development, the countryside lagged behind and the gap between urban and rural areas was growing fast. By 1970, the average income in the countryside was merely 60 percent of the urban level. While cities lived through an economic boom, the Korean village had not changed much since the 1948 birth of the Republic of Korea. It remained a world of thatched roof cottages and dirt roads. Electricity, phone lines or tap water were unheard of.
Initially targeted toward underdeveloped rural areas, Saemaul Undong soon inspired various aspects of civic and cultural life throughout the nation. The cooperation of communities across the nation rallied around the movement and it became the driving force behind Korea's modernization and rapid economic development.
Until the launching of Saemaul Undong, one could not even talk about tap water when a significant number of households ran out of food every spring. Even according to official estimates (which might have played down the significance of the problems), in the late 1960s some 300,000 households did not have enough food every spring. It was known as the "barley season" when farmers survived on barley and other substitutes, including grass.
In 1970, during his meeting with provincial governors, Park suggested a scheme that later became the Saemaul Undong. The major idea was to modernize villages, to develop their infrastructure and to get rid of old habits and traditions which were seen as superstitious.
The work had to be done by the villagers themselves, but they were to be "educated" and "mobilized" through state-sponsored campaigns and assisted by a massive reallocation of government funds as well as by "spiritual guidance." In its emphasis on local initiatives and ideological indoctrination, the Saemaul Undong is eerily reminiscent of similar campaigns in socialist countries.
However, the movement differed from rural development campaigns in the socialist world in two important regards. First, it let villagers themselves make decisions on what to build and how to spend money. Second, it did not rely exclusively on "ideological guidance." The government provided the movement with solid material support. Most socialist governments, with all their lofty rhetoric, saw the countryside as a merely reservoir of cheap labor and other resources.
Over the 1970s, the Saemaul Undong was a major topic of the media. The movement created its own bureaucracy which permeated all of rural Korea. It also had its rituals, songs, even its own uniform.
However, the government tried to keep the movement autonomous and relatively independent from the local administrative machine. The rise of local leaders was encouraged, and it is remarkable how many of the Saemaul Undong prominent leaders came from very humble backgrounds. Competition between villages was promoted, and the most successful villages were much extolled in the media. The allocation of funds and aid greatly depended on the particular village's standing in this competition.
The Saemaul Undong organized countless local projects, usually small in scale and managed by the villagers themselves. Houses were to be rebuilt with the use of modern materials and according to new plans. Furthermore, new agricultural technologies were disseminated; roads paved and widened; water supply improved; and public facilities created. In most cases it was up to the villagers to decide what they needed more, to make a choice between, say, a village hall or a new granary.
To make all this possible, the government provided the local initiative with massive material support which was generous by Korean standards of the time. In 1971, when the movement was launched, the government presented nearly every Korean village with 335 bags of cement to be used for local construction projects.
Additional giveaways soon followed. In 1972, 500 bags of cement and one ton of steel rods were allocated to those villages which were believed to have made the most of the initial allocation. In 1976, the Ministry of Home Affairs spent 25 percent of its budget on the New Village Movement. That year some 9 percent of the government budget was spent on these rural development projects. Korean villagers had never been treated by the authorities with such generosity.
An important part of the movement was the promotion of new high-yield varieties of rice which were introduced to Korea in the early 1970s. In 1971, these new varieties covered only 0.3 percent of all areas under cultivation. By 1978, an impressive 76 percent of rice cultivated was high-yield rice. In the years 1971 to 1978, rice production increased by a staggering 50 percent. The government began to subsidize rice cultivation heavily, but it also staged a nationwide civic campaign to promote these new rice varieties.
Local officials were given production quotas they were expected to meet. This was another bolder step, and in some case, the over-zealous officials and activists even destroyed seed beds planted with the old, low-yielding rice.
One publication in 1974 stated: "Laziness and factionalism are rampant among the villagers. They often gather together, drinking alcohol, exchanging filthy stories and gambling the whole night through." Therefore, not only material conditions, but culture had to be redeemed, and the movement put a heavy emphasis on various "educational" programs.
Well, actually the accusation of laziness might have been not so well founded. As scholars have noted, back in the 1960s, farmers could not work even if they wanted to because land and boats for fishermen were in very short supply.
Nonetheless, the Saemaul Undong leaders believed that the Korean countryside needed spiritual and cultural redemption.
Nowadays this part of the movement is seen as controversial, since in their zeal to exterminate the "superstitions," officials did much to destroy traditional village culture, which was closely connected with shamans and local shrines.
Nonetheless, the material improvement was quite significant and lasting. Official data states that over the 1970s, Korean villages acquired 79,000 new bridges, 37,000 village assembly halls and 28,000 autonomous water-supply systems.
The movement crested in the early 1980s and then began to recede. Partially it can be explained by the change in the nation's leadership. President Park was assassinated in 1979, and his successors were less interested in promoting rural prosperity.
At the same time, the decline of interest in the movement also reflected the social transformation of Korea - an increasing number of Koreans moved to cities, and therefore both the economic and social significance of the countryside went into decline. Last but not least, the success of the movement made the problems of the villages less pressing.
The movement did not disappear completely. It still exists, receives certain government support, and has central and local headquarters. It still runs the village projects, based on its hallmark combination of local initiative, self-organization and government leadership.
However, the movement nowadays is a shadow of its former self. This is understandable: its initial goals were achieved long ago, and nobody can doubt that Korean village communities, with all their problems, are essentially modern.
For the last couple of decades, especially since the early 1990s, the movement has received a remarkably bad press in Korea. Koreans born in the 1960s tend to be skeptical of the movement which they often see as merely a scheme aimed at strengthening the dictatorial power of General Park.
There is a grain of truth in this, so for a while it seemed that the once powerful and genuinely popular movement would come to be perceived as yet another plot of a dictatorship.
However, things have changed in the last 10 years or so.
The younger generation tends to have a more positive view of the Park era. Unlike their parents, who were former pro-democracy activists, they take a broader view, so they appreciate how exceptional Korea's economic success was in Park's era. They tend to take a more balanced attitude toward the movement without overlooking some of the unsavory elements the movement had.
A large role in the obvious shift in attitudes has resulted from overseas. Foreign developmental experts admired the results of the movement and believe that it was a remarkable success to be emulated worldwide.