Sixty years ago, South Korea was an economic wasteland. Today, it is not only the world’s 11th largest economy, but also a vibrant democracy and an emerging cultural force.
Daniel Tudor, the Korea correspondent for the Economist, suggests “South Koreans have written the most unlikely and impressive story of nation-building of the last century.”
Korea has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. This is due to Korea having been a developmental, high-growth country where things were sacrificed to barrel ahead. It was a matter of growth above all else.
If you go back to the 1950s and the early 1960s, Korea was really one of the poorest places in the world. People didn’t expect it to survive, and many people expected North Korea to take it over eventually. An adviser to former South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee said, “We were the poorest, most impossible country on the planet.”
For South Korea to have gone from this sort of messed-up, disorderly, broke country into a wealthy democracy — it would have been impossible to imagine. But the Korean people have done it.
Thanks in part to its neighbors though, South Korea is all too often overlooked. Korea probably gets overshadowed by China, Japan and North Korea. China is a massive growth story. Japan is famous as a cultural powerhouse. North Korea is just famous for being a pretty extreme dictatorship. By comparison, South Korea struggles to stand out.
And to South Koreans who are 20 years old, they don’t know much about North Korea, they don’t know anybody from North Korea, and they can’t go there, so it is simply not a reference point for them.