[Viewpoint] Is Korea still a development model?

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[Viewpoint] Is Korea still a development model?

Long before the agenda for the Seoul 2010 G-20 Summit crystallized, Korea had already set an ambitious position to act as a bridge between developed and developing countries.

It is probable that Korea will coalesce considerable consensus on the broad set of agenda revolving around a post-crisis strategy.

Regarding the development agenda, however, the G-20 Summit will be a learning moment for Korea. The lesson will be simple: Curb your enthusiasm.

Rather than presenting any novel ideas on development, the summit is more likely to be an induction of Korea into the deja vu of myriad “development initiatives.”

Korea likes to flaunt its “firsthand development experience” as the G-20 Summit Coordinating Committee Chairman Sakong Il calls it. This development experience is envisioned to comprise a key pillar of Korea’s contribution to the global development agenda.

As part of its agenda on development, Korea has been mulling the idea of introducing a new initiative for African agriculture.

Considering Korea’s remarkable economic transformation, this is welcome.

But can this “firsthand development experience” really inform any novel idea or substantively accelerate ongoing development initiatives? My answer is no and outlined below are the reasons why.

The fluidity of interests

Korea wants to mediate between developing and developed countries, yet the classification of countries into neat categories of developed and developing today is fast becoming anachronistic.

There was a time when “developed” meant rich, industrialized and powerful while “developing” meant poorer, mostly agricultural and weaker economies.

Today, these qualities have been jumbled up with a growing number of developing countries becoming formidably industrialized. China, India, Brazil, South Africa and even Mauritius, fall into this vagueness. The consequence of industrialized and developing has been a fluidity of interests that is difficult to classify neatly as purely collective interests of developing countries.

It is insightful to note that during the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, two countries conventionally classified as developing (China and South Africa) went against the G-77 group of developing countries to cosponsor the controversial final agreement that was opposed by most developing countries.

Aggregating a solid collective agenda for developing countries will therefore be difficult. This is not essentially Korea’s problem or responsibility. But the lack of a unified position or proposals on the part of developing countries will complicate Korea’s aspirations to mediate and midwife any meaningful outcomes.

Eschewing controversy

Second, the nature of what states can do to speed up economic development has changed vastly in the past 30 years. Domestically, Korea’s development was hinged on the superb, crafty application of its industrial policy.

Externally, Korea grew within the context of the Cold War where major markets such as the United States were apathetic to reciprocity as a tenet of the international trading system.

Korea was thus able to scale-up its exports to key markets while keeping its domestic market relatively closed. Industries thrived. This is no longer the case.

Today, what governments can do to substantively augment markets is more constrained by the existing international requirements. This loss of policy space ought to be the beginning point of any development agenda.

If the Korean development experience is to be of any utility to poorer countries, Korea should boldly address the international economic circumstances which facilitated the application of good policy.

Certainly, most of 1970s Korean bureaucrats and economists of Sakong Il’s ilk understand this loss of policy space.

But Korea will not take up anything controversial to the G-20 lest it ruins its “Korean Standard.” It’s not enough to talk about “good policy” without addressing the nature of an economic environment that renders itself suitable to application of “good policy.”

As long as Korea eschews controversy it’s hardly conceivable how it can credibly mediate for developing countries.


As for agriculture, the G-20 Pittsburgh and G-8 L’Aquila summits of 2009 already produced a very comprehensive program for support of agricultural development known as the Global Agricultural and Food Security Program (GAFSP). Thus, it is unforeseeable how Korea will proffer any novel ideas beyond those contained in the GAFSP and other global initiatives for agriculture.

It would be perfectly in order for Korea to simply affirm support for existing initiatives.

Yet the urge to create another development “initiative” equal to the occasion will be enticing. This is the deja vu of development initiatives. I doubt any developing country will be waiting with baited breath for the shattering outcomes of the Seoul G-20 agenda on development.

*The writer is a researcher at the Korea Institute for Development Strategy.

By Elijah N. Munyi
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