Easy, Tiger: Inside South Korea's economic miracle

REVIEW: The New Koreans by Michael Breen is a perceptive study of South Korea's transformation from a poor country of paddy fields to an industrialised economy.

by Stephen Evans
Last Updated: 22 May 2017

Can any country have come so far so fast? Sixty years ago, South Koreans had the same income as the Sudanese. Poverty was worse than in India and Pakistan. Until the 60s, peasants boiled grass and bark to fend off starvation. The greeting of the time was, 'Have you eaten rice today?'

The phrase is still occasionally used, but from habit not need. Five decades of continuous annual growth of 5% have turned the bullock-cart economy of South Korea into a prosperous industrialised nation. The swish Seoul metro makes the London Underground seem like a clanking, dirty throwback to a dark age. Gangnam in Seoul reminds you of Manhattan in the opulence of its skyscrapers - and yet a half century ago, it was no more than paddy fields. Where huts once crowded along the River Han, now people cycle for leisure and buy property for profit.

And all this has been done against the conventional Western free-market wisdom. A dictator dictated to business leaders how the economy would grow - and how they would make it happen or face jail. Korea was a victim of a brutal colonialism at the hands of the Japanese but victimhood has not stunted post-colonial development.

There is no simple recipe for South Korean success. It's a combination of factors which Breen identifies in this well-written account. The central figure is Park Chung-hee, the general who seized power in 1961 and who as self-appointed president 'inspired, bullied, beat, cajoled, and enticed the Koreans out of the paddy fields and to the forefront of the industrial world'.

But the world's ranks of failed dictators are legion. Park, in contrast, was working on favourable territory. South Koreans were a people literally hungry for betterment. They had known extreme hardship. All wars are brutal but no war was as brutal as the Korean War. The atrocities still make the jaw drop. Continuing from that episode of blood-soaked history, came the brutality of the regimes that followed.

And Park was working within a culture which valued learning. In Seoul, statues of that ruler, Sejong the Great, abound and he is depicted reading a book.

What Breen brings to this broad history is elegant phrasing and keen perception. He married a Korean and he loves the country so he looks with an outsider's eye but combines it with a deep familiarity.

On top of that, he worked as a journalist and so knows both the people in power and those without power.

His account is to be recommended to anyone who wants to understand the phenomenon of South Korea, including scholars of 'development studies'. The story is not one of a people who relied on outside aid.

The book is primarily about South Korea but you can't dodge the elephant in the northern part of the room. Breen thinks the Korean War brought so much enmity that the bonds of national unity were broken. But some sympathy for the North does still exist in the South - not so much for the regime but for the people as fellow Koreans. Despite the vibrancy of South Korea's economy and democracy, there is still fear of the North (the obvious fear of nuclear attack but also that citizens in the South will be seduced by the ideas of the North - the scorched grass may somehow seem greener). Sympathisers with North Korea get imprisoned even today.

Breen knows the big history but also the intimate habits of the people, so he does dwell, for example, on latrines and farting. And sex. Prostitution is illegal but he quotes one person he talked to: 'High-ranking officials in the police, the tax offices, and elsewhere buy sex, regardless of their age, profession, or region. It's everywhere. This sex culture where men think money can buy anything distorts their view of women.'

Which is surely true. One of the most intriguing aspects of the country is the relationship between men and women as modernity and money change attitudes of one sex to the other - men retain traditional expectations while (at least some women) want change. This can lead to unexpected outcomes: 'In Ulsan a few years ago, when a team from a conglomerate went out to a karaoke bar and the executive in charge asked the owner to arrange for some women, one of the women who arrived turned out to be the wife of one of the men in the room.'

The detail and the anecdote illuminate a bigger picture of change. The book is as good a guide to a fascinating country in transformation as you will get.

Stephen Evans is the BBC's Korea correspondent

The New Koreans: The Business, History and People of South Korea, by Michael Breen, is published by Rider Books (£14.99)

Image credit: Anne Dirkse/Wikipedia (creative commons)

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