Korea’s rise sets model for developing nations
Strong leadership, capitalism, adaptation of foreign expertise, education, ‘can-do’ spirit cited as driving forces behind rags-to-riches success
By Jung Sung-ki, Kim Young-jin
Korea’s rise from post-war poverty to international prominence provides a roadmap for countries bidding to match strides with the developed world, experts said at a forum in Seoul, Thursday.
The so-called “Korea development model” is recommended to be tailored to fit individual nations, the experts said.
At an international conference co-hosted by the Korea Institute of Public Administration (KIPA) and The Korea Times, participants highlighted key variables in Korea’s surge from the ashes of the Korean War (1950-53) to become the world’s 14th largest economy.
The event came just three weeks before Seoul hosts the G20 summit, where it hopes to play a bridging role between the advanced and developing worlds.
“The primary purpose of this conference is to share Korea's developmental skills and know-how with other late-comers,” Park Dae-won, president of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), said in his congratulatory remarks at the International Conference on the Korea Development Model at the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“By identifying the roots of Korean development, it will suggest ways that have enabled Korea to make what it is today,” he said.
Most panelists shared the view that the intelligence and diligence of the Korean people and adaptation of foreign expertise and technology as well as strong central leadership and capitalism on its own terms were key driving forces behind the “rags-to-riches” fairy tale story.
Former President Park Chung-hee’s export-oriented industrial reform and other achievements, in particular, stole the spotlight despite controversy over his authoritarian rule. Park ruled the country from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.
“Without Park Chung-hee, Korea may today be sort of like Burma or the Philippines,” said Michael Breen, chairman of Insight Communications and a Korea Times columnist.
Park’s vision was of a country with the industrial base to defend against North Korea, he said.
“While the repressive political nature of his rule was lamentable, the impressive feature of Korean growth was the pragmatic nature of the strategy taken to meet that objective,” said Breen. “But in an imperfect world, this was the price to pay for development. Without him it wouldn’t have happened.”
Bernard Rowan, political science chair at Chicago State University, said, “Korea’s miracle sets the agenda for the global community.”
Park’s determination sparked a change in the Korean mindset, he said.
“Park taught the Korean people that development was a necessity. He inspired a generation,” he said.
Park utilized central power to target development industries, to generate export-led development, and to give state preference to those industrialists who worked to follow his goals for national progress, said Rowan, citing Park’s key initiatives such as the New Village Movement and construction of the Seoul-Busan Highway.
Oh Kongdan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in the United States, said Park was able to set the tone for his successors in terms of economic development.
Unlike other authoritarian governments in the past, she said, Park’s government was strong but “not greedy or corrupt.”
“He was simply driven,” Oh said. “Korea’s more recent presidents have had a different political, social and economic agenda, but they have usually tried to keep their eyes on economic growth.’’
Andrew Salmon, a Seoul-based contributor to CNN and other foreign news organizations, agreed but also mentioned “byproducts” of Park’s leadership.
“Korea’s centrally planned economic development took place under authoritarian leadership,” Salmon noted. “Astonishing economic success was purchased at the price of political suppression and human rights abuses.”
He added that weak legal mechanisms, a problematic educational system and strong ideological divisions in politics are ongoing holdovers of authoritarian rule.
Salmon said the country also relied on the powerful corporate sector, as Park empowered businessmen to create national industries.
“These businessmen proved to be some of the most crucial factors in Korea’s success and today’s conglomerates are some of the country’s greatest assets,” he said.
The roles of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) were also cited as a factor for Korea’s development. Participants said SMEs carried their share of the load, aided by government policies including financial support and control of monopolies.
“SMEs in Korea have made a remarkable contribution to promoting industrial productivity and leading economic growth,” said Lee Jung-hee, a research fellow at KIPA. “Small businesses and their entrepreneurship have been a primary source in providing jobs and powering the economy.”
As far as the country’s technological development is concerned, experts noted that Korea went through a period of adapting technology from other countries and expanding upon these, before becoming a powerhouse in the field.
“The receptivity of Korean culture includes the commonsense idea of learning from others,” Rowan said. “Korea made strides by taking from the best and then adapting it to the Korean context.”
Some panelists touched on cultural factors such as Koreans’ zeal for education, diligence, and their intense goal-oriented nature, often dubbed “ppalli ppalli,” or a culture of moving quickly to get things done.
“The Korean people emerged from the Korean War in a desperate condition. But their history and traditions provided them with the assurance that through learning and work they could do anything,” said Rowan.
Ambassadors to Korea, representing developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America participated in the conference and shared their views on the relevance of the Korean development model as discussants and attendees.
Among the audience were nearly 100 students from emerging countries living in Korea.