Korean miracle is work of its people
By Bernard Rowan
The United Nations General Assembly recently held a review summit on the eight Millennium Development Goals. The goals are ambitious: achieving universal education, improving children’s and maternal health, creating sustainable environments, eliminating poverty and hunger, combating infectious diseases, supporting gender equality, and emphasizing the use of global partnerships (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/). No less than the future of civilization will depend upon the attainment of these goals as a project of all nations and peoples.
As I read about the Millennium Goals, I thought of South Korea as it will be described in the new publication by KIPA in cooperation with The Korea Times, under the title Rags to Riches. The book derives from the recent series of 60 development models that were serialized in The Korea Times. After reading these interesting and informative vignettes, one might well draw a conclusion that the road Korea has traveled to address these eight goals in the Korean context, a road that South Korea still remains firmly upon, is a road that many other nations would do well to understand, and more or less, to imitate in their own situation.
Not that any country can rest on its laurels. South Korea, by its own admission, must work hard to achieve sustainability. There are still too many hungry people and too many who are in need of better life chances and opportunities here. No less than President Lee has made gender equality a priority for emphasis given South Korea’s lagging rankings in this area. But having given this caveat, we can truly say that Korea is no longer just a developed country. We can say with confidence that Korea is now an advanced country, and that the shining success of her people is everywhere for us to see!
In reading about the Millennium Goals, I also thought that properly understood, they are meant not just as projects for independent nations but also for the international community as a whole. It is highly unlikely that the millennium development goals will be generally accomplished without the advancement of international cooperation and international organization. Indeed, that is a sobering contention, since it is unlikely that the primary fulcrum of political authority and energy will be international government, not for quite some time.
But I say this not to be pessimistic. One way to apply the lessons of Korean development is to consider how other nations and peoples might adopt the Korean model in its elements. Another equally important charge might be to consider how the world’s community of nations, or perhaps better, communities of nations, might do the same.
Korea today is one of the most literate, most developed, and most highly advanced economies in our world. Her example stands as a shining testimony to the strengths and indefatigable industry of the Korean people. Whilst still divided, family from family, brother from brother, by the abomination that is the DMZ, Korea’s development is world historic, even if it is not a divine miracle. When reunification does occur, the North Korean people will benefit from all of the efforts that their brothers and sisters have made in the South.
In what follows, I discuss how to apply the lessons of Korean development for other countries. This is a daunting task, as I am not an expert on this topic, but I can tell you that in addition to my own research, the 60 development models that form the backdrop to our discussions at this conference served as my primer.
My thesis is that no there are many lessons and techniques in the Korean success story that may be used or adapted to particular countries’ needs, but there should never be a one-to-one imitation. In my own work and teaching about international studies and colonialism, one of the great banes of imperialistic and colonialist mindsets has been the idea that advanced nations should diffuse their cultures, traditions, and practices to others. Philosophers from Machiavelli to Chong Yagyong would counsel us against the idea that we can simply if at all apply “our model” to others. The American follies in Iraq and Afghanistan should provide ample evidence of their advices’ probity in the contemporary context. The United Nations principle of self-determination must be a touchstone for this millennium’s efforts to achieve perpetual peace and for us to take from the Korean model what we would offer to others. I would challenge us to find any nation that has really fared well by imitating another that is any country that wishes to be a self-governing polity.
So my contention is that the lessons of the Korean model are narratives of success in the Korean historical context. These lessons may very well have applicability elsewhere, but in all such cases, they will require translation or bridging to the historical context and experience of other peoples.
Second, I want to offer my statement of six key variables that have made Korean development successful. They may not be all of the important factors, and my effort is not meant to be exhaustive. To wit, what explains or rather may constitute the inner core of Korean development, and what should we do with it? I would offer my answer in the form of an equation: begin with the intelligence of the people, specifically their educability and willingness to work as well as to invest in the public welfare of the society; add strong central leadership, typified in Korea by Park Chung-hee but leavened by leaders before and after him; include a strong state that can channel and guide the economy’s participation in a world oriented to markets and global capitalism on its own terms; then use liberally the willingness to adapt and to make useful for local purposes foreign expertise and intelligence; next preserve and allow for the evolution of traditional culture instead of seeing the future as a shedding of the past; finally, welcome an international context for national existence of porosity, or bounded autonomy. This equation would for me describe what developing countries would do well to notice and to imitate from the Korean experience.
I will describe each of the six variables I have just suggested as keys to Korean development and then conclude with some reflections on the matter of development as a project in the international system.
The intelligence of the people
I surprise my colleagues and family members when I tell them that Koreans have accomplished nearly universal literacy. Of course, if the democracy of tomorrow needs high-level knowledge, the goal now shifts to universal university-level literacy, and Korea has a ways to go. But you’re ahead of America and a host of other nations at present, and your educational attainments are a key to Korea’s development. I have a good colleague from Nigeria at Chicago State, Dr. Phillip Aka, who has written that education is the path to empowerment and to overcoming authoritarian excesses, imperialism, and the absence of self-determination in Africa (Aka, 1998). This resume of liberty likely applies in many places.
Korea’s educability is not just a matter of the reading and writing abilities of its citizenry. Korean people value the location of life chances, opportunity, and power in the hands of learned and skilled people. Educability needs a context, and in Korea the community, which I would contend is deeper than the nation of Korea, attaching positions to merit by education and achievement is a touchstone. 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.
I have read about the self-sacrifice of people to save for the nation during the era of Park Chung-hee; I’ve witnessed and read many an account of the willingness to work, and the long hours, and the organization of workplaces and institutions through various elaborations of elders and juniors. The spirit of freedom is coined on the habits of work and education in community. If the European-American matrix depended upon a work ethic, Protestant and otherwise, Korea’s culture has provided an analogue, one that is less individualistic and heroic in its core motivations. As Michael Breen said
Education was and remains the gateway to positions that their occupants believe make them better than other people ― a key motivator and source of happiness in life then as it is now. In modern Korea, education remains the great leveler: it is the only path to success and, until very recently, didn't cost much (Breen, 2010)
Breen also notes that Park Chung-hee relied upon discipline styles now associated by many with North Korea more than South, disciplines absorbed in Japanese-style education. Undoubtedly this is true. My good friend and Korean Institute of National Unification scholar Kim Jin-ha has written recently about the discipline of the military barracks of Korean soldiers in the Korean War and how this ethos was translated into civilian institutions of government in the early Korean republic as a key for state led development (Kim Jin-ha, 2010). Lee Chang-sup tells us in Rags to Riches that Korean military discipline is at the root of ppali ppali (which as a phenomenon I think also is rendered by the ubiquitous references to the verb babumnida in working with Korean colleagues) and shinbaram as cultural descriptors or values (Lee, 2010).
Korean diligence and the valuation of education may relate to the need to develop and grow, the trajectory of desperation after the War, to residues of Japanese colonialism, or to the predilections of its early ruling elites, but Korean intelligence is at root the distillation of a centuries-old tradition of valuing education, and of placing people with proven abilities in places of power. I marvel at a society where so many professors actually have practical solutions, and they actually get a chance to put them into practice. And I marvel at the masses of citizens in cities and countryside areas who rise and go about the business of their lives each day, working dawn ‘til dusk to pay for their children to have ever better education. Dedication to an informed public and the cultivation of intelligence are things to imitate and to adapt elsewhere for the cause of development.
Finally, as Kim Sun-woong reminds us, other nations cannot simply set up compulsory education, colleges and universities, and technical institutes willy-nilly and think that development will occur. Developing an educated and skilled workforce requires active tailoring of investments in public education to the needs of the economy and of valuing educated citizens as the society’s greatest reserve of capital (Kim Sung-woo, 2010).
It is critical for social progress that advancement is rooted in the possession of socially valuable skills, and that social positions are organized on the basis of having the knowledge and abilities needed for social and economic growth and development. Creating a system of public education and insuring that workers and professionals of all types invest in the acquisition and updating of needed skills is a necessary condition for development. Organizing workplaces and professions as contexts where learning and mutual self-education are valued is a sign of this key from the Korean model.
Western nations such as the United States and England claim status as democratic republics, and they have overtime jettisoned altogether or attenuated the powers of monarchical leaders and presidents. Some retain unitary forms of government, while others further limit central power through federalism. Korea doesn’t opt-in for this approach so much as of yet, though overtime it may trend in a similar direction. A unitary system with powers centered in a president-led central government has certainly enabled Korean leaders to call forth the intelligence of the people to carry the Korean experiment forward.
Tasan says that one good leader can cultivate a people, drawing on Confucius’ ideas, and this certainly has been the case in terms of the history of Korean development. I always heard that Park Chung-hee was an authoritarian leader, and I think that is likely true. But without his authority, and without what it elicited by his leadership from others, and without its suiting the Korean developmental context, we wouldn’t be here today. Tasan’s good leader is a person who inspires by his or her example, chiefly in the sense of moral education; he is not a bureaucrat or legalist (Setton, 1997). Park Chung-hee taught the Korean people that development was a necessity. He inspired a generation, and he also represented a generation of leaders across all spectrums of Korean society.
Park was willing to adapt from others, as in the case of visiting Germany and returning with the idea of the Busan expressway (Lankov, 2010). 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. He created saemaul undong, paying attention to the need to give the entire nation a way to participate in his agenda (Park, 2010). He accepted foreign aid and foreign requirements but made them serve Korean ends.
Too often, developing nations have strong leaders, but their leadership is unbridled and corrupt. Of course, Korea has had its share of executive corruptions and excesses, and I think it important to note that the leadership of Park has met its antithesis in democratic moments and movements, which also have served to strengthen the basis for Korean development (Cho, 2000). Korea has achieved its equivalent of civilian rule of the military, which I think is not incompatible with strong leadership but is a necessary condition for ongoing national development. Only when a nation’s highest leaders have submitted to the nation’s highest laws, in their office if not in their person, can the key of leadership be said to have found its true metal.
Park’s leadership suited his times, and his style of authority was in tune with the civilian application of Korean military, political, and economic elites’ public and professional ethos. I don’t think that Park Chung-hee would be elected today, and Lee Myung-bak operates under many restraints that Park might never have imagined would exist. But Park did call forth his nation, and his policies worked wonders. Developing nations need leaders who embody their cultural traditions and match policies to national needs in historical context. Park was charismatic, and he also was a pragmatist.
Capitalism on Korean terms
The story of Korean economic development attracts a lot of attention as one of the late-industrializing and newly industrialized countries, or even as a Tiger of the 20th century. Within the expanse of 40 years so it is NOT overnight and it requires the ability to follow a common trajectory overtime as well as a people amenable to it Korea conducted land reform, instituted compulsory education, opted out of import substitution-led development for a path that would promote labor-intensive manufacturing for exports, used the resources of the state to drive heavy industrialization and to favor firms that excelled, and understood and followed the laws of comparative advantage to place Korean markets on the map (Kim, Ji-hong, 2007). The Korean government built industries, reinvested capital to develop and employ new technologies, subsidized labor-intensive industries, and created market incentives through the National Investment Fund (Kim, Ji-hong, 2007). Government served as a risk-bearer for national development. The public sector was valued out of necessity and also out of knowledge. The people and the elites respected the public sector. Leaders made sure they understood its value.
And capitalism in Korea thrives today. Yes, there are chaebol excesses and regional inequalities. Yes, organized labor is hemmed in and resentful, to some extent. Yes, the income distribution and tariff policies are in need of improvement. And all of this would describe many advanced countries, not just Korea.
I think it clear that Korea’s approach to capitalism is not necessarily to be imitated by other countries in terms of the specific mechanisms; it depends on each nation’s economic assets and how they may be employed. Each nation’s effort to develop while remaining autonomous within a global system or international context will require a unique path. As Westra (2006) reminds us, Korean development itself does not denominate a “model.” At most, along with several other Asian examples such as Taiwan and Singapore, it describes a path to capitalism that in its early stages requires the state to create a context appropriate to the society which can situate the economic bases needed for development. The Korean path entailed the state “governing” markets. It would be incorrect to hypostasize a neo-classical meta-narrative of markets and apply it to the Korean case. The same also applies to any Marxist or neo-Marxist narrative.
Here one related caveat deserves mention. As is the rage with many in liberal circles, there are efforts to fit the Korean story to a model and then to liberalism. This is quite misguided. Equally misguided is the effort to trace within Asian societies an inner core that must somehow at the end of the day be authoritarian (Kim-Sung-woon, 2010), or by implication anti-capitalist. Certainly at present and over the last two decades, forces of classical liberalism and its 21st century variants have been important to the reforms of the Korean economy. However, the Korean development path would better be described, following Cho (2000), as a dialectic between the developmental authoritarianism of the Yushin regime and the Minjung movement the latter denominating efforts of labor empowerment, democratic accountability, and democratic socialist aspects of the Korean social consciousness. These are not incompatible with capitalism, and in the Korean case they constituted social democratic improvements to its operation. Any effort simply to map liberalist techniques onto Korea’s evolution, either as history or as political ideology, is mistaken. As I have long contended, there are plural forms of democracy and liberalism, and those of Asian societies should not be form-fitted to European-American self-images.
Adaptation of technology
One of the strengths of the Korea Times series is that its articles detail the Korean willingness to adapt others’ technologies. The receptivity of Korean culture includes the commonsense idea of learning from others (Lee, Tai-hee, 2010). Korea made strides by taking from the best and then adapting it to the Korean context. In quite a few cases, the end result was that a foreign technology was made Korea’s own and better than its original source. Korea has developed the technology or applied it to an even fuller extent to become a leader in the field.
Technology and industry must suit national strengths and world needs. The Korean state invested in development of heavy industries, in the organization of what would become super companies or chaebol, in ships, steel, cars, private banks, the Seoul-Busan highway, and many other technologies for development. Take KTX: Korea learned the technology through partnership with Japan. Overtime it constructed its own model of high-speed rail cars (Kim, Sung-woon, 2010). Likewise, in the case of nuclear technology, Korea now can outbid and win contracts with the Emirates that any advanced nation on earth would envy (Timblick, 2010).
Korea takes what is in the world and makes it her own, not in a covetous way mind you, but in a way that allows it to join global society on its own terms and so as to share the technology with others for public good. Maybe Korea can prompt an evolution in the international behavior of great powers, even superpowers, by her own example. This would be an example of building on the strengths of traditional powers and taking it a step further.
Sometime ago, Lester Thurow’s book, Head to Head, spoke of the need for America to develop the next generation of leading industries, and to increase investments, public and private, to accomplish this goal including the use of national industrial plans (Thurow, 1993). If this book were studied in terms of historical cases, Korea followed his suggestion to build advanced industries and products as an engine of growth through strong government, and Korea did so in cooperation with other nations.
Technology transforms the ability of an economy to achieve greater autonomy and self-sufficiency. It is no small trick to develop an economy in this direction. Korea clearly took the right path in avoiding dependence on major powers overtime by going for heavy industries and for imitating and then taking further key technologies of the present and future. No one today can go far without seeing Hyundai, Samsung, LG, and other companies’ high-quality products. This requires concerted and centralized organization as well as investment in scientific and technological development (Choi, 2010).
There is a conceit that says Korea is shedding Confucianism. This is mistaken. Korea remains perhaps the most Confucian society on earth. I can agree up to a point with our
distinguished editor, Lee Chang-sup, who says in one Korea Times article the following:
In today's Korea, the family seldom functions as a Confucian-based moral unit of society. Inside families, such moral values as filial piety respect for elders, elders-first rule and distinction between sexes are seldom taught (Lee, 2010).
But, the context for filial piety, elders first rule, and distinction between the sexes as elements of Confucianism are not static entities, and they should not be reduced to their neo-Confucian instances as the only or essential meaning of Confucianism, or the version to track overtime for its existence. Korean social organization still builds upon senior-junior systems, and while Korea families are more nuclear and Korean women more empowered today, there is nothing to say that these changes spell the end of Confucianism in Korea.
I want to suggest that the Korean Confucian virtues of jen, i, and chi can be more fruitfully understood in their contemporary significance by accenting the way that harmony or tao, a Confucian value, situates a tendency to syncretism at the level of society. In the series of 60 models, Chun-Ock-bae has commented on the plurality and syncretistic tendencies of Korea’s religion and Korean religion (Chun, 2010), but this is just one face of syncretism in Korea. Just as Korea, a small nation historically surrounded by stronger and intrusive powers, has had no option but to incorporate values and institutions implanted by others, it also has found a way to adapt them on her own terms. We just discussed my fascination with this in the field of national technologies. This would be only one example of how Korean Confucianism perpetuates relations of harmony that achieve order and progress.
Korean Confucianism is extended when people think, feel, and act so as to combine what may seem to be opposites but really what can be joined together to create a better value, practice, action, idea, or what have you. Elsewhere I have written about the Confucian idea of family and its valuation of flexibility and adaptability, relational self-development, and the proscription of scapegoating (Rowan, 2005). Ancient philosophers, West and East, said that the community is modeled on the family. Confucian relations of flexibility, adaptability, mutual aid and assistance, and networks of survival and excellence continue to this day and, I would argue, deserve empirical study for their presence in the 60 developmental models.
We should not view filial relations, ordering hierarchies between seniors and juniors, and related ideas as antiquated, and we certainly shouldn’t view Confucianism as Chosun neo-Confucianism. Confucianism, like many major philosophical systems, is capable of adaptation and change because its central values can persist and adapt across time and accordingly as they are used.
Korean Confucianism embeds in human consciousness the value of receptivity. This is neither passiveness nor co-dependence but rather the energy, value, and idea that require us neither to value too much what is above or beyond our power and understanding nor to demean and dismiss what is below our power and understanding. Whoever we are and whatever we do, we can learn from those who are leading us and from those who are following us; for we are all meant to lead and to follow in harmony. Look at the biographies of Park Chung-hee, the story of the ajumma, the history of Buddhism and Cheondogyo in Korea, for example, and you will see that survival and happiness existence in harmony is an open-ended project of learning that is alive and well in Korea and can remain so, just as it has been so for hundreds of years.
It also is no accident that Korea values and spends more on education than many other peoples per capita. Confucian culture values the leader, high or low, the senior, high or low, who is a learned person.
Obviously then, a pedestrian reading of this variable in the Korean success model would be that most societies will not be able to follow the Korean model because they are not Confucian certainly not to follow in any crude imitation. The lesson here is to search to a society’s core of motivation, and be it Islam, Christianity, deism, secularism, communism, or what have you, build upon that value matrix in a way to cultivate openness. Korea can appear liberalist, secularist, globalist, nationalist, and Buddhist, and it is surely all of these things, but coexisting alongside them all is the Confucian value matrix as a meta-narrative. Here’s one who hopes you never forget to live by it.
I think Korea’s situation between Japan and China, her having been a tribute country, colony or part of both former empires, and her long-standing alliance with the United States in the post-War era, must be a key to development. A great deal of aid and financial support came from the United States, and the U.S. also is directly committed to the security of the peninsula. Certainly this does not end the security dilemma for South Korea. Indeed, I think the Cold War environment that encapsulated South Korea, together with her retardation compared to the North early on, prompted efforts to develop. Machiavelli says that necessity is the ground of political action, and South Korea at war’s end had no choice but to develop.
However, there is more. Japan by that time had been defeated, and indications are that the Chinese grand strategy was and is not so covetous as to aspire to control the Korean peninsula as a tributary nation once again. Given contexts of global bipolarity during the Cold War and America’s sole superpower status in the present age, the South with her American ally has faced a favorable security situation, despite protestations otherwise in the American media and despite the North’s unpredictability and stupidity.
Of decisive instruction to other nations, Korea has developed by virtue of maintaining and cultivating positive global economic partnerships with all three greater powers in the region as well as with a whole host of other nations. I think a major cause of the Korean miracle is the ability of her leaders and people to pursue policies of mutual interest with other major powers to be permeable or porous to the energy and intentions of other nations. My Korean friends tell me that many people prefer to study and relate to China, while others prefer Japan. I also think it clear that many invest in knowing about and pursuing interests with American colleagues, companies, and institutions, and the same could be said of Germany, just to mention one European partner. Other nations should learn that by having relationships of mutual interest with many other countries, national security is enhanced; this kind of stability enhances development.
Korea’s international face today, typified by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and her hosting of the G-20 summit, are fitting illustrations of Korea’s growing presence on the world stage. They also are symbols of a long-standing Korean openness and permeability to her neighbors. Making the most of being surrounded by powerful others is the Korean international context. And it looks to be a fairly reliable way to maintain autonomy and independence, such as they are in the contemporary international system. Bounded autonomy is not the enemy of development.
In a security sense, the main partner has been the United States. In a broader sense, given the absence of hostilities, Korea has partnered with all comers and with many rivals to her other partners. Plato said that the best way to maintain peace is to cultivate relations with those who might be your enemies. Today’s friends may not always be so friendly, and the balance of friendship may change. Korea is versatile in its international relations. Porosity in the realm of international and security relations is a related face of syncretism.
This brief survey of six variables that are keys to the Korean economic miracle has not presented a model itself, but rather elements that may be of use to other nations, developing or otherwise, as means for self-understanding and the improvement of national, regional, and international mechanisms for stability, growth, and prosperity.
Korea’s evolution to an advanced economy and democracy is still in progress, but its ability to use what the global system and its allies offer, its tenacity in national exertions, and its combination of unitary government and strong state-led development are important touchstones for those reading the Korean story to ponder closely. Korean development and Korean society have evolved with a strong component of the active state, anchored in a modernized version of leadership by one person who has gathered political and economic potential behind state-led development. But the Korean miracle was the work of her people. It is their social cohesion and internal solidarity as a people that has made possible the kaleidoscope of growth and evolution to make Korea what it is today.
I want to conclude by emphasizing that the Korean miracle sets an agenda for the global community. Just as the global partnerships premised as a Millennium Development Goal really constitute a necessary means for global existence in the present age, the six variables I have analyzed within the story of the Korean miracle imply an agenda for international organization in this century. Leaving aside the choice of constitutional forms, many of the prerequisites for development exist as technologies in the public realm. Nations need assistance on their own terms to move forward. I hope that the World Bank, the great powers, and the elites and peoples of developing nations will take to heart the lessons for their own reform that the Korean case provides. It can do us all nothing but good on the road to prosperity and peace.