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.
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.
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