The Korean example

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The Korean example

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An American colleague from the investment sector called during the Christmas holidays to ask about Korea. His question was a simple one: How did Korea transform from a corrupt and opaque system, unwelcome to international investors, into one that now sets the standard for a fairly open and transparent business environment? As with many Americans operating in China, he was frustrated with the vagaries of corruption and inconsistent application of rules, and wanted to know how or when China would follow the “Korean example.”

One hears this more and more these days - the “Korean example.” International aid experts want to know how other countries can follow Korea’s path of turning from a net development assistance recipient into a net aid donor. African specialists marvel at the example set by Korea as a host of global events like the Olympics, World Cup or World Expo, as their countries aspire to do the same. And Chinese remain baffled at how their own efforts to spread “soft power” fail while Korea’s “Gangnam Style” attracts the attention of over one billion people around the globe.

To me, the “Korean example” derived from many factors. But there are two that stand out - democratization in 1987 and the financial crisis in 1997. The first of these hardly figures in the average Korean’s daily thoughts. The other is, ironically, one that the average Korean would care to forget. The 1997 financial crisis rudely shocked Korean businesses and households into seeing the flaws of an economy that irresponsibly leveraged growth at all costs. Koreans chafed at difficult IMF reforms at the time, but they ultimately helped to insulate the Korean economy from the global financial meltdown involving the United States five years ago.

Democratization was critical to Korea’s emergence, not simply because it allowed for direct presidential elections, but perhaps even more importantly because it placed a premium on openness, rules and transparency in a juridical system as the legitimate goal of Korean society. Of course, there were other related factors, such as the 1988 Olympics, bursting of the credit bubble and the emergence of a consumer middle class, but without democratization and the financial crisis, I do not think the world would be talking about the “Korean example” today.

Koreans (like Americans) do not think about democracy on a daily basis. In fact, many Koreans today probably curse their own political system that just elected a former dictator’s daughter as the next president of the country. But here once again, Korea may be setting a new example.

No other population in East Asia has elected a woman to the highest office in the land. While scandals are typically the norm in Asian politics, even in democracies like the Philippines, Korea was devoid of any earth-shattering controversies afflicting either candidate in the recent election (or claims of voting station irregularities like in the United States). Koreans may not feel this way about their candidates, but the world saw one candidate as a reluctant and quiet gentleman, who was loyal to a former president and who wanted to carry out his vision of a more equitable society.

And it saw the other candidate as a woman, who had no material need to enter the dirty world of politics, but only chose to do so when the nation plunged into crisis in 1997. She then rose to the highest office in the land with the promise to unite a politically divided country. From the world’s perspective, the Korean election saw two candidates who appeared to be genuinely interested in public service more than political power.

Moreover, unlike other previous presidents in Korea, Park Geun-hye will take office next month having already lived in the Blue House once before. In politics, where the power-hungry lust for power and will abandon almost any value to achieve it, it is refreshing to have a president who will be less distracted by the aura of the office and more focused on the work at hand.

Park will also be the first occupant of the Blue House who has already visited North Korea and met with its leadership before taking office. This might mean less of the single-minded pursuit of a visit to Pyongyang that seemed to afflict past presidencies. It is true that Park does not have the extensive business experiences needed to bring the country out of its current economic malaise. But then again, the outgoing president’s business experience did not appear to help much in that matter.

At the end of our conversation, my friend let out a long sigh. Korea’s experience shows how far China has yet to go. As disappointed as some Koreans may be with their presidential choice, Korea is once again setting a new example for Asia and the world.


*The author is Korea chair at CSIS and professor at Georgetown University. His book, “The Impossible State,” was named as one of Foreign Affairs Best Books for 2012 on Asia.
By Victor Cha
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