The Meteoric Rise of South Korea
As recently as the 1960s, South Korea was so far down the chain that they would have been considered a poverty stricken, third-world state. In a relatively short time compared to past history, South Korea has risen to be one of the most wealthy and powerful countries in the world. But what was it about this small country that managed to thrive so well after the Korean war?
Post War: The Two Koreas
Upon the ceasefire agreement between North and South Korea, the now-split nation began to grow under separate systems with eyes all over the world watching. During the rather intense conflict between Communism and Capitalism, both sides were fighting to prove which system was better, and focused on the development of these two nations.
Though South Korea was the capitalism child, the country had a very different form of capitalism than is known to the West, especially in comparison to the United States. While a free market did exist, many early successes were funded by the government. In fact, many reasons that chaebols exist today is because of previous financial backing of the government (that may or may not still be a factor, depending on who you speak to).
The Korean war devastated the peninsula equally, adding to the state of the already poorly treated Korean citizens who had suffered under Japanese rule. The gap between the rich and the poor was so large that there wasn’t really the existence of a middle class during the time that South Korea came to be. Underdeveloped and lacking strong leadership, president Rhee Seungman was instituted by the Allied forces. Though a strong ally of the United States, Rhee was known for his totalitarian and sometimes cruel rule that set the tone for a seemingly endless number of coups that occurred in the shift for power, only settling as recently as 1987.
This early period in South Korea’s history marked a time of continued turmoil, as North Korean forces pressured the withdrawal of the United States and continued to be a source of issue to the newly developing country. The eventual unrest of the people caused Rhee to submit his resignation and flee the country after a number of intense suppression methods that only led further to his downfall.
One other notable leader in history books is Park Chunghee. Though also known for cruelty toward his enemies and ruling more as a singular leader rather than through the democratic system, Park helped to push a massive industrialization effort in Korea that would help the country grow exponentially in the economic realm. With this economic as well as technological growth, opportunities expanded for education, and a growing middle class as well. This economic flourish and cultural growth was often described as the “miracle on the Han River.”
The intense rise in education is often credited to not just the enthusiasm of the Korean people for knowledge, but also in response to the Japanese repression of it during their occupation time. As a result, just a few generations later a vast majority of citizens are college educated and go on to work in a technological field that then expands the country’s reach in the technological realm.
Because Korea is situated in a location that does not offer many natural resources, the rise of the Communication Age in the late 20th century was the opportunity the country needed to further grow economically. Today, South Korea is in the top five major players list on technology development, sometimes rising as high as second on the list (just behind Japan). Korea also boasts an unbelievably slim amount of poverty, with just 2% of the population affected by absolute poverty (as of data collected in 2013). For comparison, the general poverty rate in the United States approaches 13%.
But what is it about Korea that has allowed the country to grow so drastically in such a short period of time? Many experts point toward the cultural roots of Koreans, who value hard work and discipline. Many of those that experience Japanese occupation saw the opportunity at independence as a time to prove what the citizens were capable of when given the chance of freedom, which they certainly did and continue to do. Unlike their Northern counterparts who were dealing with rather intense social repression, citizens did not stand for mistreatment by government officials for long and felt safer to rise up against injustice. The younger population especially is known for exercising their right to protest and effectively change the situation of government as necessary.
Even the rise of K-Pop exemplifies Korea’s amazing ability to flourish. Since gaining traction in the early 90s, K-Pop has skyrocketed not only in influence but in overall wealth generation, rapidly growing to the point of gaining a global audience and producing a stupid amount of revenue for businesses. It was even just released that BTS, BigHit Entertainment’s only majorly active group, has brought in the company so much revenue that they are now worth more than all three of the big three entertainment companies of Korea (YG Entertainment, SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, respectfully).
K-Pop is just an example of a subcategory of Korean cultural success since the end of the Korean War. Very few countries, if any, have seen such a huge growth in success in such a short period of time, proving the commitment and strength of the Korean people.