Learning from the Miracle on Han River
Ahmed Munirus Saleheen after a trip to the country
Path walker, there is no path. You must make the path as you walk. -- Antonio Machado, Spanish poet
The medium-height, thin gentleman in his late seventies took no time to capture our attention and focus, as he embarked on his presentation by asking us what we wanted know about South Korea. In a cosy classroom at KOICA (Korea International Cooperation Agency), nestled in a lush green mountain base, the veteran Professor Chun, President of Korea Institute of Development Strategy (KDS), was forthright, and lucid, while speaking. He was engaged in his deliberations in which he had escorted a group Bangladesh government officials in a mental journey through the meandering alleys of South Korea's economic development.
Popularly known throughout the world as the "miracle on the Hangang River", the transformation of one of the world's poorest agrarian societies, i.e. South Korea, into a modern developed nation has captured the imagination of all development agents. Simple in presentation but firm in his conviction, the professor seemed to epitomise simplicity and pride that characterise the modern Koreans.
The modulation in his voice, however, could not hide his emotions as he reminisced about the days gone by -- the days of hunger and poverty, of war and crimes. Emotions oscillated between the poles of pathos and joy where the latter figured more prominently against the squalid background of the former. In his childhood, he lost his father who was kidnapped by the North Korean forces during the three-year-long civil war (1950-53) between the two Koreas. His face was subtly beaming with pride as he told the story of South Korea's magical transformation from a hopeless country in the 1960s into a modern industrial nation by the late nineties, within a span of about 40 years.
The Miracle on the Han River (gang) enabled South Korea, a country without any natural resources, to elevate its per capita GDP (gross domestic product) from 70 USD in the late sixties to 25,000 USD in 2012. This is really a miracle that has rapidly transformed South Korea into a high-income advanced nation and the world's 11th largest economy by 1995. Today, South Korea is the eighth largest country in international trade. A country first brutally colonised for thirty-five years (1910-1945) by Japan and then ravaged by a bloody civil war, the modern South Korea reminds one of the rise of the mythical phoenix from its own ashes.
SACRIFICING TODAY FOR TOMORROW: In the Professor Chun's class, on the presentation-screen flashed a pair of pictures of the same place in two different periods. The first picture of the Chong-gye stream in downtown Seoul of the 1950s shows a row of shanty-like wooden structures piled upon one another on its muddy banks, while the other picture of the same place in the 2000s shows the stream still flowing -¬through a row of skyscrapers standing proudly amid sprawling greenery on its both sides. These two pictures seemed good enough to portray the gravity of a transformation.
As the presentation progressed with a spellbound audience, a side-glance enabled me to notice how a lady participant was trying to hide her tears at the narration of the hardship that the South Korean mine workers and nurses had gone through in the then West Germany: in the early sixties, coal mine workers worked 1000 metres below the ground level, while nurses spent their days doing sterilisation of corpses with alcohol. As they worked like Middle Age slaves, the South Korean mine workers, the professor informed, forgot to greet each other with their traditional 'An-nyeong-ha-se-yo' (meaning "How are you? How do you do? Good Morning/ Afternoon/ Evening)". Instead, they would greet each other with 'Return alive'.
But the professor perhaps could not afford a public demonstration of personal feelings; he was rather more focused on the lesson learnt from the sacrifices that those wage earners had made: "Development is tracking a long, thorny path which is easy to stray, calling for the sacrifice of today for tomorrow."
CLUES TO SECRETS: Given the dramatic development with such a speed, the temptation to know the secrets was hard to resist for anyone interested in development issues. The secrets, however, are not the same to all, nor are they so simple as to be replicated by any country irrespective of their socio-economic and political milieu. Dr. Park, a retired government official and now working as Executive Director of KDS, shared the humble pride in Korea's advancement from rags to riches with many of his countrymen. In his characteristic humorous vein, he referred to the 'tigresses' to underpin women empowerment as he formulated an acronym to reveal the secrets of the Korean development miracle: GAP - Government's National Development Plan, Assistance from international community, and People's will to make a better country.
Most of the Bangladeshis perhaps would not subscribe to the development prescription propounded by development economists, like William Easterly, that "Democracy is not a prerequisite for economic growth that aid proponents maintain. On the contrary, it is economic growth that is a prerequisite for democracy." Like it or leave it, South Korea did follow this formula.
South Korea's development under the leadership of General Park Chung-hee, who was criticised by many as a ruthless military dictator, has been cited by many development economists as an empirical model of the above proposition. In Professor Chun's analogy of four stages of development with the four stages of development of human behaviour, the stage of mouth comes much before the stage of brain -- subtly putting the necessity of economic growth before democracy. No doubt, most South Koreans like Prof. Chun shared General Park's philosophy that in human life, economics precedes politics or culture. According to him, corruption and political chaos made South Korea what the international development agencies like the World Bank and IMF termed a hopeless country and rendered it unworthy of credit. President General park was said to beg the then West Germany in tearful eyes for loan which was granted on certain conditions. Put the universal dichotomy between democracy and development aside, we were made to believe that leadership -- the leadership to set a vision and motivate the people at large to pursue that vision with wholehearted commitment -- is the most integral factor for economic development.
Prof. Chun dwelt on the same subject and catalogued a few factors such as land reform, construction of highways, skilled manpower with job opportunities both at home and abroad, financial accessibility and the spirit of self-help and cooperation for South Korea's economic development. Especially, sustainable rural development through land reform and the 'Saemaul Undong' (new community movement) played a crucial role in integrating the majority of the Koreans into a collective vision. Interestingly, the professor called their 'new community movement' based on the three principles of diligence, self-help and cooperation, as well as 'carrot and competition' policy, the Spiritual Modernisation which instantly reminded me of the renaissance that awakened different nations throughout the ages.
The secrets of success became further manifest as another speaker used the 'baby-metaphor' for building enterprises. This metaphor signifies partnership, pain, sacrifice and devotion required for bringing a baby -¬the future -- up. To elaborate, as a baby requires marriage to be born, accompanies pain to be born and needs a mother's full sacrifice and devotion to care, so does an enterprise to flourish and sustain.
TUNNEL AND THE LIGHT AT ITS END: As we passed through one of the many long tunnels beneath mountains in a luxurious bus, many of us indulged in a kind of self-loathing that our achievement during a span of forty years looked awfully dwarfish when compared to South Korea's. And a pinch of salt was added to injury when someone quipped, "We have no tunnels and hence no light at the end of the tunnel." But the lesson that we can take from the Miracle on the Han River is definitely not one of such pessimism. Rather, we can at least take cues from the 'software of the mind', as Geert Hofstede terms it, of the nations like South Korea that have been able to transcend themselves by dint of visionary leadership, a vision owned by all and, above all, an all-encompassing 'can-do' spirit. Installing the 'software of the mind' obviously necessitates leadership that will not only set a vision but will also motivate us to own that vision, and steer us to collectively work out that vision into reality.
Most of the South Koreans we interacted with, during our two-week training programme, believed that it was their leadership that singularly accounted for the proverbial development. This leadership infused in the people a vision as well as a can-do spirit. For they believe, "if a country is led by the top 10 per cent of integrous (sic) and competent people, 80 per cent will follow and the remaining 10 per cent will hide away". It is high time we had a paradigm shift in our search for development models in the Western world. South Korea is undoubtedly a good example for us to follow.
The writer is a Bangladesh government official. The opinions expressed in the article are the author's own, and do not represent the views or position of the organisation he serves. email@example.com.
The Financial Express
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