Many parts of South Korea’s capital city-Seoul, including the central business district of the city where 5 star hotels like Lotte Hotel and one of global brand hotels Westin are located look a lot like Canada’s Toronto or America’s New York cities.
One area called the Digital Media Centre in Seoul seems destined to become like New York’s Manhattan given the size of digital advert screens and traffic of people with the latest fashion trends and communication gadgets as they admire both modern art and culture that living in the city has afforded them.
Welcome to the capital city of South Korea, a country that has defied all odds and managed to beat poverty in less than 50 years, becoming a first world country today while it was mostly rural and poor in the 1960s with Koreans surviving mostly on rice or potatoes and living in grass-thatched homes.
Korean people are fully aware of this leap to another level coming from afar and their government has embarked on sharing the country’s story to citizens in developing countries with hopes that they can also stop agonising but organise to change their situation.
The Koreans have been sharing their story to the world through a programme known as Saemaul and I was in the country this week on the invitation by the Korean government to attend the ‘2016 Global Saemaul Leadership Forum’ as a member of the media.
It attracted more than 700 participants, mainly leaders and policy makers in selected developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as development experts from the United Nations.
“Koreans can connect with the current generation of people in developing countries because they understand our challenges as they have been there and they still freshly remember it,” said Emma Françoise Isumbingabo, Rwanda’s Ambassador to South Korea, who attended the event.
Isumbingabo explained in an interview that there is a lot to learn from Koreans in critical areas such as technology, ICT, rural development, and education.
Villages in the country have today become small towns, with people living in modern homes with electricity and plumbing while farmers, who now comprise a tiny 7 per cent of about 50-million population, practice modern farming whereby mechanisation, irrigation, and farms in greenhouses are popular.
The country’s roads are the best and most sophisticated I have ever seen given that mountains and large bodies of water here didn’t prevent Koreans from building highways on entire water surfaces or inside many mountains and on top of valleys.
Loads of Hyundai cars ply those roads, many of them carrying dressed-up professionals rushing to work or delivering Korea-made goods to homes across the country for domestic consumption while a lot more goods such as cars and Samsung TV sets and phones are exported to the rest of the world in abundance via the Pacific Ocean.
In the early 1960s, the country’s first major export items were mainly light industrial products manufactured in small factories, or raw material, which were promoted with officials’ export-oriented economic development plans.
Then in the 1970s, the country invested in heavy chemical facilities such as refineries for imported crude oil for re-export after adding value to it while today South Korea has a number of industries that make some of the world’s best ships, steel, and chemical industries.
By 2010, South Korea had emerged as the 7th largest exporting country and from 2011 to 2013, the total volume of her exports and imports stood at US$1 trillion, making it the 9th country to attain the target of US$1 trillion in annual foreign trade both imports and exports combined.
South Korea has therefore been described by experts as one of the world’s economic miracles after it posted a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of US$26,205 in 2013, up from a measly US$60 in1948.
The 2015 Rankings by the Global Finance Magazine based on GDP of every country has placed South Korea (Republic of Korea) at No. 29 among the world’s richest countries and the magazine said that today’s per capita income in South Korea is US$37,413.
Countries ahead of South Korea in the ranking among the wealthiest are normally those that are insanely rich such as Qatar ($146,011), Luxembourg ($94,167), Singapore ($84,821), Brunei ($80,335), Kuwait ($71,600), Norway ($67,619), United Arab Emirates (67,201), and Hong Kong ($57,676), and the United States($57,045) among others.
How South Korea did it
Most of the current development achievements in the country are attributed to the ‘can-do’ spirit which was instilled in citizens by late Park Chung-hee, former President of South Korea, who encouraged Koreans to be self-reliant and work hard collectively.
As a leader of the country for 18 years (1961- 1979), Park also extended the government support to the growth of family-owned industrial corporations, such as Hyundai and Samsung among others, and tasked them to help transform South Korea into a modern and export-oriented industrial country.
By extending government borrowed credit to the experienced family-owned corporations and offering them tenders to carry out essential public works, Park made the conglomerates wealthy enough to provide jobs for citizens but he also moved to bridge the gap between rural and urban development.
He initiated a programme to promote rural development called “Saemaul Undong,” or the “New Village Movement”, which encouraged villagers to form cooperatives and collectively work hard to improve their lives.
Under Saemaul Undong, the Park government provided village communities in South Korea with a lot of incentives to work in development projects such as building roads, irrigation systems, and houses among others while the villages were given cement, steel and other kinds of material support to improve their lives.
The villagers under Saemaul Undong programme created a saving and credit cooperative bank to help them access financial loans and were encouraged to initiate their local industrial production units and carry out modern farming to end chronic food insecurity.
Development scholars and Koreans themselves say that the programme was very successful and brought development and modernity to the remote corners of the country.
“What former President Park did is to encourage Koreans and create awareness that they can actually do whatever they want to do to address their needs,” says Dr. Heung Youl Youm, a Korean academic who teaches Information Security Engineering at Soon Chun Hyang University near Seoul.
The Koreans are currently spearheading the Global Saemaul Leadership programme across the world in developing countries to help villages there replicate the approach of managing their local challenges and start their move towards economic prosperity.
From South Korea’s ‘can-do’ spirit, a modern and rich society has emerged and seems ready to give back to the rest of the world but also trade more with it.