The new New Village movement

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The new New Village movement

Government agencies are competing to revive the so-called Saemaul (New Village) Movement, the ambitious, can-do community modernization campaign driven by President Park Chung Hee in the 1970s to modernize Korea’s rural areas.

It all started during the last presidential campaign. Some members in the camp of ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye proposed rekindling the community movement to revitalize the social and economic mood for invention and innovation. As the word “Saemaul” is almost synonymous with Park’s father Park Chung Hee - his dictatorship and his effective efforts to modernize Korea and raise its living standards - it generated political controversy. The campaign managers and new government thought of keeping the movement alive by selling it abroad.

The best place to package it was within the official development assistance - funds committed by the nation to help underdeveloped countries. Projects like the Globalization of the Saemaul Movement and the International Saemaul Campaign took up the bulk of our Official Development System (ODA) budget. About 32 central and local government agencies were given a total budget of 2.04 trillion won ($1.79 billion) of the ODA. Of the sum, 54.2 percent is claimed by the Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF) of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and 35.2 percent by the Korea International Cooperation Agency, a charity arm of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Saemaul legacy has been ardently sustained overseas by the Saemaul Undong Center and North Gyeongsang province, the hometown of the late president. But now it has become the new buzzword in the public sector.

Hyun Oh-seok, finance minister and deputy prime minister for the economy, held a bilateral economic cooperation meeting in Myanmar and pledged the EDCF fund to help rural development there. The Ministry of Strategy and Finance called it a New-Concept Saemaul Campaign. Kim Young-mok, president of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (Koica), said in his inauguration speech in May that his agency will be committed to developing and exporting tailored Saemaul programs to underdeveloped societies. The organization also signed a business agreement with the provincial government of North Gyeongsang to propagate the development model overseas.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs also jumped in. It declared a new overseas project offering consulting services in rural and food policies based on the Saemaul movement to governments of underdeveloped and developing nations. Yeungnam University, with a long history of academic research on the Saemaul movement, is in high demand. The university signed contracts with various government agencies like Koica, the Rural Development Administration, the Korea Rural Economic Institute and the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. It also won state budgeting after it was recognized as a university at the forefront of overseas academic cooperation and development on Saemaul projects.

The Saemaul Movement was a unique, Korean-style rural and community development program in the 1970s that won global recognition for its contribution to transforming South Korea from a poor country to an industrialized and modernized one. Even scholars critical of the Park Chung Hee government admit to the merits of the Saemaul program in rural development. The United Nations borrowed the economic and business model of the Saemaul movement to combat poverty in Africa and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific also applied it to community development programs in Laos, Nepal and Cambodia. The development model is being practiced in 74 countries.

But there are concerns about all the hoopla over the Saemaul movement. Many suspect an ulterior motive behind the sudden repackaging of existing projects in the name of the movement. A political motive seems clear. The Saemaul campaign has never been a part of government overseas development projects. Instead, it was a specialized field within the ODA. But making Korea’s ODA all about the Saemaul Movement is overdoing it. The excessive attention to North Gyeongsang - hometown of incumbent President Park and her father - and Yeongnam University is undesirable. North Gyeongsang province has persistently campaigned for the globalization of the Saemaul movement since 2005 and shouldn’t be blamed. But it cannot deny the role of Choi Oe-chool, now vice president of Yeongnam University and a former aide to President Park in her presidential campaign, in the push for globalizing the movement.

The hype over the Saemaul movement is damaging the country’s overseas development initiatives with overlapping and disorganized projects. The Prime Minister’s Office has lost its coordination function. The most important work of theorizing and systematizing the studies and developing models fit for individual communities is neglected. Some fear the Saemaul movement may end up a white elephant like the Four Rivers renovation project or the Korean food globalization campaign of the previous government. The government must act as a control tower on the campaign. Saemaul is our economic and business brand. We must not contaminate it with politics.


*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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