Dissecting the Korean ‘miracle’
How must the land of Samsung, Hyundai, LG and “Gangnam Style” be in reality? Such thoughts had often occupied my mind. We landed at Incheon International Airport in the forenoon of August 16, 2015, and the journey to downtown Seoul left me in a state of curious wonder. From August 17 to 27, we were exposed to various aspects of Korea’s economic development through lectures by eminent speakers at KDI school of Public Policy and Management and visits to other institutions and cultural monuments of national eminence.
The end of the Second World War and Japan’s surrender had heralded the era of Korean independence. Back then, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. Its per capita income was almost equivalent to India’s. The Korean War of the 1950s had added further misery. The country was left completely devastated and bereft of vital resources. However, the “benevolent dictatorship” of President Park for almost two decades since mid-sixties not only laid the foundation for the “Korean (economic) Miracle”, but also put it on a high-growth trajectory.
Korea initially laid its focus on human development, achieving 100 percent literacy in a very short span of time. Simultaneously, it promoted “export-led industrialisation” under the stewardship of President Park. Some key industries/sectors were identified and clear-cut output targets fixed, the progress of which were monitored fortnightly by none other than President Park himself. He worked like Super Chief Executive of the major companies called “Chaebols”, while presiding over these meetings. The government patronised these industries, even to the extent of taking loans on their behalf when they were not in a position to garner it on their own from international lenders.
The government laid its emphasis on different sectors at various points in time. It initially started with very small nail clippers which symbolised “Made in Korea”. But it soon moved on to televisions, steel, ship building, and finally mobile phones and advanced electronics. President Park’s policies were continued by his successor (succession was in a violent way through the assassination of President Park by the head of Korean intelligence), who also was a military man like him and subsequently by other democratically elected presidents.
A number of institutions were set up to support the Korea story, including Korea Development Institute (KDI), which not only provided intellectual backup in the form of ideas, but also stable leadership. We learnt that faculty members of KDI were often appointed Ministers/ Vice-Ministers/ Secretaries in the Government. After their stint in government, they would came back again to teach. Similarly, establishments of Polytechnics to supply quality technical manpower was another initiative led by the government.
A culture of performance was promoted from the beginning. The government effectively utilized the limited resources. Funds were restricted to high-performing villages. The citizens despite (or because of) despotic rule have supported government initiatives - once even to the extent of donating their jewellery on a large scale in 1997-98 when Korea was passing through a tough economic phase.
There is very little plain land in Korea. Despite large-scale vertical urbanisation, nearly 70 percent of its geographical area is under green cover. There has been substantial public participation in increasing Korea’s green cover. The government is aiming for further green growth. Meanwhile, they have also set a target to reduce greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2020.
The administration is run by an able and clean bureaucracy, as screening mechanism of bureaucrats for further promotion is done in an objective way. There are also very good opportunities for competent and honest bureaucrats to occupy very high government positions, even to the extent of becoming Vice Ministers or Ministers. The bureaucrats are also paid well. Suffice to say, their salaries are comparable to the private sector. They also command respect in the society and their selection in government service is celebrated extensively.
However, there is another side to the story. At present Korea is suffering from the problems that afflict other developed countries — its population is aging rapidly and its workforce is shrinking, an insular urban culture which affects the support structure for the elderly and the rise of single or separated persons further affected by the heat of intense competition. We read about an organisation which organises funeral services of dead who have no kith or kin - a tragedy indeed. Added to this is the unsustainability associated with its hostile twin brother, North Korea. A brinkmanship like situation was created during our stay when propaganda speakers were put up by South Korea after a few of its soldiers died due to a landmine explosion. The North Koreans had also mobilised their Army to the border. The crisis was averted after intense diplomatic efforts. This indicates the fragility of the Korea story.
(The author is Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Textiles. The views expressed are strictly personal)