Korea is asserting itself as a major force in the world! If you don’t know much about Korea, please take notice, in more ways than one, it is a rising star on the world stage.
Korea has often thought of themselves as a victim, and indeed the 20th century has not been kind to the country. In 1910 it was invaded by Japan and they continued their occupation and exploitation until their defeat by the US and its allies at the end of World War II, when the Japanese were permanently expelled from the peninsula. Soon after the end of World War II, a brutal civil war broke out in 1950 between North Korea, loyal to communist Soviet Union and China, and South Korea, who sided with the United States and its allies. At the end of the war in 1953, the country lay in ruins with the 38th parallel line dividing the north and south, a division that continues today. The U.S. was instrumental in helping to rebuild its ally in the south, establishing the Republic of Korea or commonly known as South Korea, but much of the credit should be attributed to the future-looking and hard-working people of Korea.
I recently visited the country, called simply Korea, for a 10 day study tour in November 2014, sponsored by the Academy of Korean Studies located south of Seoul. The mission of the tour was to expose educators, curriculum writers, and textbook publishers from around the world to modern Korea. From my brief observations it didn’t appear that Korea is a victim anymore. They are riding high on their economic miracle that has transformed the country from a per capita income of just $100 (US) in the 1960s to a per capital income of $40,000 (US) today. Indeed, it ranks as the 12th largest economy in the world, an astonishing accomplishment considering it historic situation. How could this small country (South Korea is about the size of the US state of Indiana) have transformed itself from a country mired in poverty and misery to a prosperous nation in just a short 60 year time span?
I pondered this question as I toured the country of Korea. The more I saw of the country and met its people, the more I felt that its story needed to be told to an American and global audience. Korea’s rise, at least in the US, has remained somewhat of a secret. Its achievements have been overshadowed by its much larger and more familiar neighbors — China and Japan. Or the bizarre escapades of their Korean neighbors to the north. In fact, I told a knowledgeable friend about my trip to Korea and mentioned the global reach of the Korean Samsung Conglomerate and she responded: “Oh, I thought Samsung was from China.”
Koreans have touted their economic miracle, and indeed it is true, but how did it happen? How do their students consistently place at the top of academic achievement across the world? How can they export their wildly popular Korean bands – K-pop – to the rest of the world? How have they catapulted their economy from manufacturing “junk” to highly sophisticated consumer products ranging from cars to electronics? What do the Koreans think about their communist neighbors to the north? Do they live in constant fear of a nuclear attack by the unstable regime or do they merely dismiss the threat as highly improbable?
These are just a few of the questions I want to address in a series of blogs on Korea. I plan to use a big picture, holistic approach in studying this country. This means I will look at how major economic, social, political, religious, and business factors interact to produce the “Korean Miracle.” I will examine their economic system, known as the Miracle on the Han River (a river flowing through Seoul), where the country experienced rapid economic growth. But the economy has a close relationship to Korea’s tumultuous political system that has since evolved from a dictatorship in the early 1960s to a stable democracy today.
The Korean Wave, the phenomenal growth and appeal of popular Korean cultural products since the late 1990s, include K-pop music, cinema, and television dramas. All this is enhanced by the popularity of sophisticated Korean technological products and automobiles. The country’s students are ranked as the best academically in world, but this has come at a price: Korea also ranks at the top of youth suicides. The pressure to succeed in an increasingly competitive world takes its toll among those students in Korea who aren’t a match for such brutal competition.
I won’t just sing the praises of the ascent of Korea onto the world stage; I will talk about its blemishes as well. However, I hope you will follow our blog series on Korea and learn more about this fascinating country. After a holiday hiatus, we will have the second installment of our Korea blog series on Tuesday, January 6, 2015.