Special Report on South Korea: Korea enjoys its labour's fruits

South Korea calls Britain Youngguk - `prosperous land' - but now it rivals us economically and has a modernising government, says Raymond Whitaker
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The Independent Online
The Korean word for Britain is Youngguk - "prosperous land" - reflecting our domination of the world economy in the 19th century. But President Kim Young Sam of South Korea, who arrives here today, represents a nation which at the end of the 20th century is rivalling Britain in prosperity, and which is at the heart of the most dynamic economic region in the world.

If the first Korean impression of Britain was founded on a dim and distant vision of wealth, the same is probably true for how we see the South Koreans today. Beyond one or two memories of the Seoul Olympics in 1988, most Europeans probably have little sense of South Korea outside the economic sphere.

The general picture is of a nation which, thanks to astute state management and incredibly hard work, has shot up the world economic league and pushed a handful of corporate names, such as Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai, into the Western consciousness. Even now, however, they are often mistaken for Japanese companies, and of the Korean way of life or history, apart from the war which divided the peninsula four decades ago, there is next to no awareness.

One look at the map helps to explain a great deal about Korea's past, as well as its national character. Bordered by China, Russia and Japan, with 37,000 US soldiers still on its soil, subject to invasion over the centuries by Chinese, Mongols and Japanese, it has taken unique determination, not to say stubbornness, to keep the Korean language and culture alive. That single-minded will to survive can be seen in the courses chosen by both Koreas since 1953 -while the South threw everything into becoming an industrial trading nation, the North pursued a pathological form of Communism, which has frequently hijacked international attention from its neighbour's economic achievements.

The collapse of Communism elsewhere simply heightened Pyongyang's intransigence, and encouraged the regime to press ahead with efforts to develop nuclear weapons. If the authorities in Seoul felt threatened before, their uneasiness has scarcely been allayed by the concessions North Korea has gained by giving up its nuclear programme. Not only was South Korea forced to watch its bitter rival negotiating secretly with the US, its closest ally, but it is having to pay the lion's share of the cost of buying off Pyongyang. Many in Seoul fear that the deal may delay further the unfinished business of the Korean war, the cost of which, in terms of disunity, dislocation and divided families, still saddens every Korean.

In electing Mr Kim in December 1992, however, South Korea shook off one legacy of the war - domination by the military, which used the threat from the north as the excuse for four decades of repression. (Even now suspected sympathisers with North Korea are mercilessly victimised.) The 67-year-old Mr Kim won the chance to become the country's first non-military president by forming an alliance with the generals he had spent his career opposing, but that did not inhibit him when he took office. "His greatest achievement has been to get the army out of politics," said a diplomat in Seoul. The new president was equally vigorous in dealing with corruption, in politics and business as well as in the military.

Some of Mr Kim's opponents would claim that the whirlwind pace of reform has slowed as his five-year term of office nears the half-way point, partly because he can no longer convincingly blame everything that is wrong on the work of system bequeathed him by his predecessors. Having dealt with South Korea's most flagrant public ills, further reforms will meet greater resistance. But the president is trying to push South Korean society in a new direction in the time left to him.

It may seem gratifying that every official and pundit is obediently repeating the term "globalisation", which Mr Kim has proclaimed as his new crusade, but it helps to illustrate what he is trying to change. South Korea remains in many ways a regimented society, surprisingly isolated from the world, given that it is the 12th largest trading nation. Less than a decade ago South Koreans could not obtain a passport, unless it was for business or official purposes. Language skills are rare, and would-be foreign investors encounter suspicion. Even now conservative elements, mainly in the generation which sacrificed itself to rebuild the country, can be heard to complain about people spending time and money on holidays within South Korea, let alone abroad.

With the benefit of having been outside the ruling establishment for most of his life, President Kim seems better able to appreciate that South Korea can expect few favours in the new world order. A country whose economy has outgrown several members of the European Union has little hope of persuading the World Trade Organisation, the successor to Gatt, to place it in the poorest of three categories of membership. Pressure on South Korea to open its markets is almost as intense as on Japan, and the intellectual- property watchdogs will not always tolerate the fake Rolexes and Chanel handbags on sale in Seoul's Itaewon quarter.

Mr Kim's response is that South Korea must shed its defensiveness and take its place in the world. With characteristic energy, his government is applying to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, is lobbying for one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council and is bidding to stage the 2002 World Cup.

The nation's dealings with the rest of the world thus far, a government document says, have "largely been equated with efforts to enhance competitiveness . . . The traditional one-dimensional preoccupation with the state of our economy must be redirected into politics, culture, ethics, the arts and all other aspects of national life." Reading between the lines, what this appears to be saying to South Koreans is that they have more freedom than they have ever had before. It is time they started to enjoy it.


Population: 44.8 million

Area: 99,313 km sq

Principal Cities:

Seoul 10.6 million (capital)

Pusan 3.8 million

Taegu 2.3 million

Inchon 1.8 million

Gross domestic product: 1993 US$331 billion

GDP per capita: 1993 $7,500

GDP growth: 1994 8 per cent

Inflation: 1994 6.1 per cent

Visible trade:

Imports: 1993 US$84.3


Exports: 1993 US$83.5billion

Deficit: US$0.8billion


Buddhist: 12 million

Protestant: 0.4 million

Roman Catholic: 2.5 million

Confucian: 8 million