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How South Korea rose from the ashes

Jun 22 2015 07:39
Mandi Smallhorne

A hilltop overlooking the northern-most Seoul city skyline, facing north. (Ed Jones, AFP)

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IT'S mid-week as I write, and I think I’m more or less recovered from my trip to South Korea.

Wow! That’s the definition of long-haul, I think - 14 600 km. I sliced it up into two tranches each way, with a change of planes in Doha. Weird going from our first real cold snap of this winter to a brief encounter, as I stepped off the plane, with 33 degree heat at midnight on the Persian Gulf.

Two things I’m really, really missing about Korea: the loos and the online speeds. Internet speeds are so much faster than ours. It makes you feel like some kind of plaasjapie-come-to-town, like the Zambians Trevor Noah describes going to test-drive the new escalator (and then taking pics of it with their iPhones, mind you).

You grab ten pics from your day’s activities and upload them to Facebook and ping! There they are. A miracle.

The loo – I’m not a great one for luxury products and heaven knows I’ve laughed at images of Far Eastern toilets, but that was before I tried one. Standard equipment in Gangnam, where we were, these luxury loos have a battery of buttons for Bidet, Spray And Dry. Dry I could take or leave, but I adored Spray and Bidet. I'm going to start saving right away…

As I used these high-tech features of Seoul, and walked the streets dominated by soaring, beautifully conceived buildings, my thoughts kept turning to a recent Ha-Joon Chang book I’d read, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. Chang is an economist at Cambridge, specialising in development economics, who was born in South Korea in 1963.

At the World Conference of Science Journalists 2015, the event I was attending, one of the Korean speakers reminded us that back in around 1960, the South was actually poorer than the North. Chang was born into a relatively comfortable family, but he remembers clearly the excitement when they got a fridge, something people at lower income levels could not even dream of.

Fifty years later, as we toured parts of Seoul, our group noted that we only came across one really poor person (a man who looked a bit demented, was poorly dressed and sitting in a bus shelter with a couple of worn packets, obviously his possessions).

In contrast, in the 1950s half the population lived in absolute poverty (a state characterised by severe deprivation of basic needs like food and water); today just 2% do. Back when Chang was born, South Korea’s per capita income was $82 – half that of Ghana.

Clean streets, lined with trees

And now, the wealth of the country is evident as you walk the clean streets, lined with trees. (And that wealth comes with safety, too: where our murder rate is over 30 per thousand of population, theirs isn’t even three, at least according to the most recent figures I could find. And you feel it in the streets; I would not have been afraid to walk around alone well into the night.)

By the early 1980s, the per capita income was around $1 000.

How did the country do it? Well, by doing everything wrong, according to the ideology the world now espouses, as Chang writes: South Korea’s government made a point of using protectionist tools to nurture young industries, and to guide big companies into areas the state thought would work for the country.

Among other things, it built state-run businesses (shock! horror!), which Chang points out have often been the kickstarters of healthy capitalism, contrary to modern popular belief; provided subsidies to manufacturers so they could grow, find stability and firm up their product offerings without the eternal pressure to be profitable within a year or so; and imposed stringent controls on foreign exchange which would not be ‘allowed’ in today’s global economic regime.

This, notes Chang, was not at all an odd route to choose, it was an eminently sensible course of action that emulated those who had gone before: “practically all of today’s developed countries, including Britain and the US, the supposed homes of the free market and free trade, have become rich on the basis of policy recipes that go against neo-liberal economics”.

Fate of a nation set by leadership, not ‘culture'

And for a country with poor natural resources, battling to recover after a devastating 50 years of Japanese occupation and war, these policies - combined with a focus on education - are what has pulled the country out of the mire of severe poverty and delivered the wealth its citizens share today.

In Bad Samaritans, Chang has a fascinating chapter on culture, noting that Germans were seen as over-emotional and lazy in the early 19th century; the Japanese were described as lazy, with no regard for time, in the early 20th century; and the Koreans were “sullen, lazy and religionless savages”.

Sound familiar? The fate of a nation is not set by ‘culture’, a moving target which changes remarkably fast, but rather by leadership in both government and civil society which is creative, willing to do what works rather than what’s prescribed, and (here’s the kicker) driven by a desire to genuinely deliver a better life for all its people.

As I moved around the streets of Seoul, it was clear that, whatever their faults, the South Korean leadership during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s had managed to do that for the healthy, prosperous millions I was walking among.

And I found myself wishing…

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  south korea
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