ODA holds the key to boosting Korea’s image

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ODA holds the key to boosting Korea’s image

Lee Hyuk
The author is a former Korean ambassador to Vietnam. 
 During a dinner in Washington D.C. about 15 years ago, a retired American diplomat with lengthy experience in the South Korean mission observed that South Koreans are people with “constructive pessimism.” Indeed, the tendency to be doubtful of the future has made South Koreans prepare more rigorously for whatever lies ahead. Their acute survival instinct has served them well and brought their country far.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), South Korea’s per capita GDP stood at $31,638 in 2020, outpacing $31,604 in Italy, a member of the G7. The country has leapfrogged from one of the poorest to one of the richest in just half a century.

Despite amazing progress, South Koreans still live with the anxiety of a sudden misfortune due to inherent jitters about the future.

Among 39-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea ranks the lowest in happiness and birth rates, and the highest in its suicide rate. South Koreans were the only people who prized money over family in a Pew Research Center poll of 17 countries. The results could be somehow natural in a society that regards everything in the competitive context while lacking compassion for others or the spirit of communalism for co-prosperity under the reign of materialism.

Happiness at the bottom

Many historically great figures commonly identified passion and compassion as their life’s motivation. A highly successful person cannot be respected if he or she merely pursues with passion achievement while lacking humanity. Among the people who have achieved great fame, character has made many stand out more than their capabilities.

If Korean society, with its brutally competitive environment and widened wealth disparities, does not evolve into a benevolent one, it cannot command warm, dignified and harmonious maturity. Koreans are ready and should be led by “constructive optimism” so that they can be more satisfied with their realities and believe a better future lies ahead. Only then will the community turn more attention to others and help the needy around the globe.

Where does South Korea stand in the global community? In the economic context, it is close to the G7. But whether the country has a dignity of the developed sort cannot be certain. A nation can be dignified upon achieving a certain level of rank. The guidelines include international contributions including aid, a democratic political system, judicial standards, openness and inclusiveness, dignity of the people, social security, intellectual and cultural maturity, to name but a few.

South Korea in 2006 joined the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of OECD formed for foreign aid. The OECD sets aid targets per country to 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI). Only four out of 30 DAC members met the target — Luxemburg (1.05 percent), Norway (1.02 percent), Demark (0.71 percent), and Sweden (0.99 percent).

Still strong with self-serving mercantile image

The United States doled out the most — $34.6 billion — in foreign aid last year, but the amount is only 0.16 percent of its GNI. Japan, which had been the biggest contributor to OECD in the 1990s, delivered $15.5 billion in foreign aid in 2021, the fourth after the U.S., the UK and Germany. Yet its share against GNI also remained paltry at 0.29 percent.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposal last year to temporarily roll back foreign aid spending to 0.5 percent of GNI from a 0.7 percent target under budgetary pressure to fight Covid-19 narrowly passed parliament. Former prime minister John Major called the cut in foreign aid a move to turn “Great Britain” into “Little England.” Civilian bodies lambasted the government and parliament for breaking their promise to poor people around the world. The UK may have to bear the dent in its international reputation for some time.

South Korea’s official development assistance (ODA) totaled $2.5 billion last year, just 0.15 percent of its GNI. Its contribution is the smallest among the G7 and half of Italy, which offered $4.9 billion, or 0.24 percent of its GNI.

It may be unfair to compare Korea, which joined the developed ranks not long ago, with other long-developed economies. But at the same time, Korea has the moral duty to help other poor countries more as it experienced hunger and poverty only a half a century ago.

Many South Korean enterprises have generated huge profits in Southeast Asia and other countries. They contribute to jobs and technological advancement in the countries. Still, they are nevertheless scorned for being mercantile without interest in aiding progress in the countries.

South Korea must become more globally conscious. It is often compared to other Far East Asian countries — China and Japan. South Korea cannot match China and Japan in military and economic power. For peaceful South Korea to beat the two countries without getting caught up in a hegemonic contest, it must be more devoted to global issues like poverty, climate change, infectious diseases and contribution to global peace and prosperity.

Foreign aid, a barometer of competitiveness

Last year, China, a non-DAC member, spent $38 billion in ODA, which accounts for 0.36 percent of its GNI. That sum beats the U.S. to become the world’s biggest aid provider, regardless of its stealthy design to mitigate its image as an undemocratic authoritarian regime and muster more China-friendly nations.

While U.S. and other developed economies were more engaged in stockpiling Covid-19 vaccines to fight the spread in their own country, China handed out its vaccines to Southeast Asia, Africa and other developing nations to strengthen ties with them and bolster its national image.

South Korea’s direction is laid out. As a latecomer in the developed category and a Northeast Asian member, it must incrementally increase foreign aid to the level of Japan’s 0.3 percent vis-à-vis its GNI. The government could face resistance due to ever-growing spending demands at home. But overseas contributions are a strong measurement for national competitiveness.

As a newly rich country with a unique developmental history, South Korea should not miss the opportunity to shine through benevolence to humanity during difficult times.
At the same time, the country must develop charms to the nation to add as much appeal as developed countries. It must build a national image to draw more foreigners to visit and live in Korea.

Due to its small scale and geopolitical reasons, South Korea did not have the leisure to build up its cultural legacy as much as China, Japan or Western countries. But South Korea has been drawing awe from global community for its manufacturing power as well as for its remarkable soft power in movies and music. The Korean Wave has upgraded Korea’s image and the value of Korean products.

Toward a global community with openness

The time has come for the Korean people to join in the efforts to create an open, inclusive and mature community. If the country does not offer an open and free stage, Koreans cannot move onto the global stage. To foreigners, there is still a gap between the K-wave and their perceptions about Koreans.

Koreans must regard themselves as global citizens to help raise the dignity of their country.

Korea’s overseas contribution, openness and inclusiveness will be put to the test as its economy advances. It must pass the test to gain international recognition and treatment as a developed nation.

I envision a country vibrant in economic activity, warm with compassion for others, and sophisticated with cultural refinement. When the dream comes true, South Korea will truly become a developed nation both materially and spiritually through the rise in national dignity and capabilities.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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