South Korea: One of the World’s Great Success Stories Heads to the Polls

TIME talks to Daniel Tudor, author of 'Korea: The Impossible Country,' about the upcoming presidential election.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Book cover of "Korea: The Impossible Country"

Sixty years ago, South Korea was an economic wasteland. Today, it is not only the world’s 11th largest economy, but also a vibrant democracy and an emerging cultural force. This transformation is the subject of a new book, Korea: The Impossible Country, by Daniel Tudor, Korea correspondent for the Economist. He argues that, thanks in part to its neighbors, South Korea is all too often overlooked. A pity, he says, since “South Koreans have written the most unlikely and impressive story of nation-building of the last century.”

In less than two weeks, on Dec. 19, South Korea’s story will take another turn with the election of a new President. To get a feel for what’s at stake, TIME talked to Tudor about the book, the election and, of course, Seoul’s unpredictable neighbor, North Korea. Here are some highlights:

(TIME’s Asia Cover Story: History’s Child: Park Geun-hye)

So, what is ‘impossible’ about South Korea?
If you go back to the 1950s and the early 1960s, Korea was really one of the poorest places in the world. People didn’t expect it to survive, and many people expected North Korea to take it over eventually. I was talking to this guy who was an adviser to former dictator Park Chung-hee, who said, ‘We were the poorest, most impossible country on the planet.’ For Korea to have gone from this sort of messed-up, disorderly, broke country into a wealthy democracy — it would have been impossible to imagine. But the Korean people have done it.

For young people in Korea now, however, life is full of impossible targets. You have to go to the right university, get the right job and marry the right person. And when your kids are born, you have to put them through the same trials and tribulations. Life is in some ways impossible.

You suggest that South Korea doesn’t get the level of interest it deserves. How so? 
Korea probably gets overshadowed by China, Japan and North Korea. The first is a massive growth story. The second is famous as a cultural powerhouse. North Korea is just famous for being a pretty extreme dictatorship. By comparison, South Korea struggles to stand out.

Historically, Korea has been closed off; it had sort of an inward character. Now that is changing, but the perception has not caught up with reality. Korea right now changes so quickly — politically, socially, economically — there is always something going on, and it’s never boring.

Right, South Korea is just weeks away from a presidential election. What are the key issues?
The two main candidates [Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in] are very, very different people, but their promises are pretty similar. I think that is because the Korean public wants two specific things, in terms of the economy at least. First, a crackdown on corporate conglomerates. Second, to increase the size of the welfare state.

Korea has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending in the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]. This is due to Korea having been a developmental, high-growth country where things were sacrificed to barrel ahead. It was a matter of growth above all else. The headline numbers were more important than the stories behind them. But now we are seeing more of an interest in quality of life and the distribution of wealth.

Outside South Korea, I think people assume North Korea is at the top of the agenda.
If you live in Seoul, or if you live in Pusan, you go to work in the morning, come home at night, you see your family and you go to the shops on the weekend — you are living a normal life, and North Korea is just not part of that. You are concerned about education, your children, if you have them, about how much salary you get, the ordinary stuff that people in Canada or Brazil worry about.

Maybe really old people, the people who can still remember a united Korea — I’m sure it is very important to them. But to somebody who is 20 years old now, they don’t know anybody from North Korea, they don’t know much about North Korea, they can’t go, so it is not a reference point for them.

(MORE: North Korea Plans Satellite Launch: Why Now?)

What about gender? The front runner in this election, Park Geun-hye, is calling for ‘a women’s revolution’ should she win.
I don’t think [her candidacy] is a revolution. She has a very specific political brand that really comes from the Park name, from her father. It is not like she is a woman who has come from nowhere and by purely her own virtue has become a front runner in the presidential election. Those who vote for her will mostly be those who can remember her father and liked him. So I don’t see this as being a great watershed moment for women.

Generally, Korea should have a women’s revolution, yeah. If you look at big companies in Seoul, you see a lot of younger women, but not older women. We will have to see if this younger generation of women starts getting married and having kids, will they be able to go back to work, or not?

Why is that so important?
The people born around 1960 are going to retire in the next few years, and there is going to be a massive, massive cohort of people who need pensions. And, meanwhile, nobody is having kids anymore: the average Korean woman has 1.2 children in her lifetime. So, in a few years, there will be nobody, really, at work, working to pay the pensions of these people. So you need women in the workforce to fill that gap even. But because raising a child in Korea is so horrendously expensive, people only have one kid. If more women were working, if they had a double income, maybe those families would be able to have another kid, and that would help solve this problem. So there is a need for better child-care facilities. That’s a really big thing. All the main candidates are talking about that now.

Also, it is a matter of fairness and choice.

So who is going to win the election?
[Laughs.] It is going to be close. That’s all I’ll say.

MORE: South Korea Roars Again

19 comments
BenKim
BenKim

President Park Junghee was a DICTATOR

He was also a GREAT MAN

we can all agree on those two

BongkyunMoon
BongkyunMoon

Emily, stop calling President Park a dictator. He is the most respected man in Korea.If he is a dictator, then what should we call FDR who was president for 4 terms? And, George Bush who was elected by electoral votes even though he lost popular votes to Al Gore? You are brainwashed by militant- like leftists in Korea. Park was elected 3 times by direct election by Korean people. I find it highly offensive that you call a great man who eradicated absolute poverty in Korea saving millions of people a dictator. The miraculous rise of South Korean economy is largely credited to President Park Junghee. He is revered by tens of millions of Korean people. So, please stop your nonsense, and get your fact straight. Learn from the common people who lived in his era. If you call a great man who saved millions from poverty a dictator, what would you call Mother Teresa who saved thousands of people? He is a great man. Please, show some respect.

HaroldSeokohYun
HaroldSeokohYun

As a Korean-American living in Korea, I'm curious about the book and how it deals with the elder Park. To give him no credit for his work would be unfair, but he definitely doesn't deserve demi-god like status he has among some of the older locals here. But then again, a lot of places in the world that long for 'simpler' days where they could just follow orders and let others be responsible.

mkbuzdar
mkbuzdar

Great story of a Nation that work together for the Nation not for the self....

keneckert
keneckert

"South Korea doesn’t get the level of interest it deserves." It is amusing to read the article, not because its claims are untrue but because outsiders have such a different picture of South Korea than expatriates living here do. Actually living and working in Korea is to be exposed to a constant media and conversational barrage of chest-thumping (Gangnam Style / Kim Yuna / exports / food / something will show the world how great we are) or martyr-playing (it's Japan / America's fault that we're poor / we're divided / it's raining; how we've suffered! suffered! suffered!). No foreigner here thinks that Korea needs another excuse to praise itself.

Having said these things, one of the things that keeps me here is that the country is admittedly changing rapidly. Ten years ago I was a hero if I could find a tin of beans, and now supermarkets have foreign food and wine aisles. Korea is not singularly unique in rebuilding itself after a war--Germany did a pretty good job of this too!--but the country does deserve regard for its rising standard of living, even if quality of life is not quite there yet.

IJeon62
IJeon62

The dictatorship of Chung-Hee Park must not be justified. He definitely made a blueprint of an economic growth. However, South Korea had already founded the basis of development by constructing high-quality human resources as Korean people have great interests in education and eager for better standards of living. Therefore, the economic quantum leap is not solely upon his contribution. Furthermore, the dictator not only resulted in a massacre of many intellectuals -former president, Dae-Joong Kim escaped to Japan to survive from Park's madness- but also failed to reckon crimes and corruptions of pro-Japanese collaborators who led the fall of Chosun dynasty. Also, Park, himself wrote a letter in blood to be a general in Japanese army, so he cannot be freed from questioning of the unpatriotic behaviour and corruption. To sum up, it seemed impossible for South Korea to be very successful after the Korean war. Nevertheless, civilians and intellectuals of South Korea had built the stepping stone of the growth, not the leader of coup-de-tat. 

fonsekabab3
fonsekabab3

Many folks in Korea (older folks who support Mun Jae In for upcoming election) resent Park Chung Hee for his rather dictatorial and harsh way of ruling. It did not seem like democracy under his rules. But, it is true that his rule shaped South Korea the way it is now. He is one of those authoritarian ruler who really cared for the future of his people, although the people did not realize it at the time. By the way, Park Geum Hye, current female candidate to the presidency, is the only daughter of Park Chung He. It doesn't mean much but it's worth knowing.

TuanPham
TuanPham

It is an incredible success story of a country building.  People should thank Park Chung Hee for this.  If the CIA had killed him (like they did to many strong men in that era), then I don't know what would happen to them now.

Lamar56371908
Lamar56371908

@BongkyunMoon What rock have you been living under? Mother Theresa was a monster who accepted bribes from criminals and advocated against contraception in Africa. If anything, she's a mass murderer.

christoronto88
christoronto88

South Korean economic miracle is not "rebuilding" like Germany. It is something like rags to riches.. Besides, if you have not suffered, you would not understand the feeling of "suffering." I kind of understand how Jewish will feel against Germans. Unless you are Korean, you will not understand such feeling. Of course, I am not trying to say that in negative way or something though.

RyanKyungKyunRoh
RyanKyungKyunRoh

@IJeon62 I can't agree with your "South Korea had already founded the basis of development by constructing high-quality human resources. . . " There were nothing on that peninsula in 1950~1960. Have you ever heard of "Hills of barley" which means very very hungry seasons during spring to summer ? That kind of food problem was solved by president Park jung hee. And the fact that he killed many innocent civilians is still being argued, I mean it's either massacre or riot. Many pictures from that moment prove that many civilian stole the weapons of army. There are no definite truths or facts but debates. 

domo
domo

@fonsekabab3  wrong. Park geun hye is getting the most support from the old generations who had experienced the regime of Park chung hee and she is not the only daughter of Park chung hee. She has a sister and a brother.

Chosun1
Chosun1

Korea is a great success story.  Like Germany and Japan before it, Pax Americana (also Occupation Americana -- shhhhhhh, it's a nice, peaceful type of  quasi-colonialism) were also big factors (and still are). 

IJeon62
IJeon62

@RyanKyungKyunRoh @IJeon62 @RyanKyungKyunRoh @IJeon62 Well. I have heard of the hills of barley. Although Korean parents had no food to feed their children in some periods, they put their children in class room as they strongly belived that the education was the key to end the hunger. For example, there were more than a hundred students in one class room with only one teacher back in days. Furthermore, a lot of students went to study abroad to mainly Japan and the USA while the rest of their families support them starving. Also, there might be several viewpoints in interpreting Park's order; however, he had not shown any intention to interact and discuss with civilians and changed the constitution in order to make it righteous. Only a massacre happened. Then who had participated in the protest or riot? Those were mainly university students who were the most educated. As a representative of a liberalised democratic country, his decision, no matter what the characteristic of the incident, cannkt be justified. On the same context, his daughter must clarify her stance regarding the massacre if she wants to be a president.

HakwangYi
HakwangYi

@RyanKyungKyunRoh @IJeon62 then why on earth did they do that? why do you think they got to be so angry after being relieved from that acute poverty and hunger thanks to that omnepotent president? and what do you meanby still being argued? from your saying you already define it as a fact that many innocent civilians had been killed. In my understanding today we call it the protest against dictatorship and every hitory book need to be revised unless its truth or fact. I guess they might have been suffered by something suprisingly measerable, which should be far more terrible then poverty and hunger. what do you think it was?

IJeon62
IJeon62

@kurazy @IJeon62. I never said that Koreans were totally stupid and also I already referred that he definitely push the nation's economy to the next level. However, in my perspective, he devalued the notion of democracy and had hige corruption. I just want to replenish that, so the dictatorship would not happen later.

kurazy
kurazy

@IJeon62  Your comment is very narrow minded. It is fair to attack what President Park has done in the past in terms of delaying democracy in S.Korea and how it tried to isolate S.Korea by developing nuclear weapon etc. However, you really cannot deny everything President Park has done for the country. Seriously, there are way too many things he did in terms of shooting up economy; shipbuilding, highway construction, turning our focus from small industrial goods like wigs to larger industrial goods. These are things President Park should be credit for and he should not be criticized for economic and social developments. 

In addition, your comment that South Korean parents had educational mindset after the Korean War is totally ill-founded. More than 70% of South Korean at the time was illiterate. Rightfully so, because most people at the time were spending time in the fields trying to make a living rather than spending time in school trying to study for the future. How can there be a future when there is not enough food tomorrow? 

By industrializing society and building more factories, by organizing government construction plans, these problems began to be solved. After President Park time, people had enough food to go through hills of barley and thats when people began to look to their future. It is only logical to think this way and it is proven through history. 

Please... it is ok to criticize President Park's shortcoming,  but your comments will not have merits if you deny EVERYTHING he has done. Do you think people in korea are so stupid and blind sided to think he is the best president in Korean history?