August Issue 2013
In the Mirror of South Korea
When I saw the teenage son of a niece wearing a ‘Gangnam Style’ T-shirt at the Islamabad Literature Festival, I casually told him that I had seen Psy, the singer, in real life. I was a bit taken aback by his instant reaction: “Really?” And I had to explain that Psy was at the airport when we were departing from Seoul after a week-long visit to South Korea in late April. We were alerted by the commotion that his presence had created.
This miracle that a South Korean rapper had created in the world of music made me think: Is it also some kind of a tribute to a Far Eastern country that is rather unique in its ethnic and linguistic identity? And does it matter that ‘Gangnam Style’ is about the lavish lifestyle of a trendy district in Seoul named Gangnam?
Anyhow, the world and its teenagers may have fallen in love with the video but knowing and making sense of South Korea is a different matter altogether. This, however, was the purpose of our visit to a country that has a peculiar reference to Pakistan. A long time ago, in the early sixties, Pakistan and South Korea were lagging behind together in the developing world. Legend has it — and we discovered that it had more than a modicum of truth — that South Korea was inspired by the five-year plans designed by our very own economist Mahbub-ul-Haq. In addition to the five-year planning cycle, the two countries also suffered sustained military intervention.
But something happened as the two countries advanced on their separate journeys of growth and development. South Korea is now firmly placed in the community of rich and advanced countries. At the same time, it is a confirmed democracy. It is thus important to probe the question: How did the paths charted by the two countries become so divergent and what can Pakistan now learn from South Korea?
Hence the study visit to South Korea, sponsored by Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency (PILDAT). I had the privilege of being a member of a group that included some very distinguished individuals. With a focus on civil-military relations, the objective of the visit was to understand and learn from the South Korean experience of establishing democratic control of defence and national security.
This would obviously entail a careful observation of the current state of affairs in South Korea. Any visit to a foreign location, even of a touristic nature, prompts some serious thoughts in the context of how it differs from your home country. In this case, there was also the precious opportunity to discuss the issues with parliamentarians, scholars and high officials. With an active involvement of our ambassador in Seoul, Shaukat Mukadam, the PILDAT group was able to cover a lot of ground in a tight and well-designed schedule.
So what are the lessons that Pakistan can learn from the South Korean experience in its transition from military rule to democratic consolidation? One way of responding to this question would be to attempt a summary of the discussions that were held at, for instance, the ASAN Institute of Policy Studies, the Korea Development Institute, the National Assembly Research Service, the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee of the National Assembly, and the Korea Institute of Defence Analysis. I was particularly interested in the visit to the National Election Commission, particularly because we visited South Korea about two weeks before our own elections.
There were, also, some more relaxed encounters. A visit to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), with its intimations of the Cold War that is a matter of history in the rest of the world, was a separate journey altogether. In some ways, it could make you think about Pakistan’s relations with India but there can hardly be a relationship to compare with the incongruity that exists between the North and the South Koreas. You have the same people living in two very different worlds, divided by a war that has technically not ended. I felt like I was straying into an old Hollywood movie, perhaps a spy thriller.
A long time ago, in the early sixties, Pakistan and South Korea were lagging behind together in the developing world. Legend has it that South Korea was inspired by the five-year plans designed by our very own economist Mahbub-ul-Haq. But something happened as the two countries advanced on their separate journeys of growth and development. South Korea is now firmly placed in the community of rich and advanced countries. How did the paths charted by the two countries become so divergent?
Throughout this visit, I kept wondering what Pakistan could learn from the South Korean experience. Great transformations in history are always very difficult to explain in the context of the behaviour of specific institutions and particular challenges. For instance, it would be instructive to compare the South Korean military with the Pakistani military.
Again and again, one is reminded of the nation-building role that the modern military can play. The gist of it was that the military has the ability to modernise an otherwise traditional and rural society. Was Ayub Khan a moderniser? And if this were true, how could the same outfit produce a Zia-ul-Haq? Another question: is the transition to modernity an essential requirement for transition to democracy? One crucial difference is that there is compulsory military training in South Korea.
As an aside, I should say that a somewhat paradoxical fact underlined my thoughts during the visit: The present elected president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of the former military dictator General Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country for 18 years after seizing power in a coup. That she is the first female to become the president is an additional distinction. Apparently, there is now greater respect for the military and some retired generals have gained high positions. Repeatedly, we were told that the military does not interfere in politics anymore.
Besides, I did not notice the same blanket vilification of the role of the military among South Korean intellectuals that one finds in Pakistan. It was argued in one session that the military there had served as an equaliser because men joining the military, when about half the population lived in poverty, were able to acquire education and were exposed to new ideas. The strategic bond with the United States was a great help in this context.
There is general agreement that the South Korean economy began to pick up after the coup in the early sixties. The military was the most efficient and the most organised sector in South Korea. Scholars at a think tank offered a very interesting formulation about how it was the military that created the South Korean middle class when it established heavy industries and created the scope for skilled labour and extensive vocational training. Even prisoners were educated and in the seventies, a very large number of South Korean skilled workers were employed in the Middle East when the country’s population was around 30 million. At present it is about 50 million, with one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Another lesson, here?
“Our obsession at that time was education and real estate,” said one researcher. Industrialisation and growth in higher education went side by side. But during this long process, South Korea was confronted with a serious security crisis, thanks to the ambiguity of its relations with North Korea and its strategic alliance with the United States. What is the lesson here: simply that while a country has a national security crisis, it can still build its economy.
There is hardly any justification for recounting South Korea’s history and quoting statistics in a relatively brief account of South Korea’s astonishing economic progress. The disparity between South Korea and Pakistan is enormous. Besides, I feel inclined to devote my attention to an essentially non-academic and rather subjective interpretation of the reasons for South Korea’s success from the standpoint of a Pakistani journalist not very pleased with the role of the military establishment even during civilian rule.
It was in this vein that I sought my answers in the mirror of the South Korean society. It is always a great opportunity to visit a foreign country and explore its secrets in a certain context. I must also admit that I had some previous familiarity with not only South Korea but also with China and Japan. These three countries — and their cultures — are bound together by Confucian philosophy. This is so in spite of the fact that South Korea has a love-hate relationship with Japan and, to some extent, China, too.
I did not notice the same blanket vilification of the role of the military among South Korean intellectuals that you find in Pakistan. It was argued in one session that the military there had served as an equaliser because men joining the military, when about half the population lived in poverty, were able to acquire education and were exposed to new ideas. The strategic bond with the United States was a great help in this context.
South Korea was under Japanese occupation for 35 years, until the end of the World War II. This historical experience is deeply ingrained in the South Korean psyche. One of the most potent motivations for South Korea has been to beat the Japanese at their own game. One night, after dinner, a local guest refused a lift and said that he would take the underground metro. “How good is it?” I asked. With obvious pride, he said: “It is better than Tokyo’s.” Perhaps he meant that it was as good as Tokyo’s.
About Confucianism, let me only say it stresses duty and honour and filial piety. Respect for age and seniority — the concept of ‘ancestor worship’ — is an integral part of these cultures and one can recognise this in meetings and gatherings. The sense of duty is translated in hard work. Hence, I see that we need to learn from the work ethic one finds in South Korea — as in Japan and China.
But the most meaningful difference between Pakistan and South Korea relates to how the two countries relate to religion. Pakistan was created in the name of religion. Religion has also been the seed of violent and passionate conflicts. Religion serves as the yardstick for all worldly affairs and it arouses deadly furies.
South Koreans do not wear religion on their sleeves. There is little concern for other people’s faith. Consider the fact that nearly half of the adults profess no religion. Buddhism and Christianity are listed as the main religions. We saw Christian evangelists hawking their ideology in a trendy market and it did not seem to create any sense of flutter.
This, to me, is the decisive difference between Pakistan — or any other Muslim country — and the Far Eastern societies. In Japan, I have met people who would pause a little when you asked them about their religion.
When I stress the overarching influence of culture and the character of the people, in a collective sense, on the historical evolution of a country, the idea is to study the transformation of South Korea from a military dictatorship to a democracy in this framework. But this formulation also poses a problem. Does this mean that Pakistan has nothing to learn from South Korea if it is not able to forsake its own way of life and values? Perhaps not. And I do believe that a careful study of how South Korea has risen to such heights during the past decades is very useful for us.
Before I take up the issue of how South Korea can truly inspire us and serve as a role model in some areas, I would like to share the approach I adopt to try to understand a foreign country. The first thing to do, naturally, is to see the sights and walk the streets. As a journalist, I have acquired a passion for observing people as they go along living their daily lives. A busy market or entertainment area is also a museum of sorts.
With similar intentions, I also try to visit the campus of a university and just walk around and see if someone speaking English can be my guide and let me speak to some students. It is important to speak to girl students. Talking of girls, there is something that I quietly observe in every city to determine its level of social progress and security. Can a woman or a group of women walk on the streets in a carefree manner late in the evening? By the way, Seoul gets full marks in this respect.
I must also experience the public transport system of the city I am visiting. One may apply, in this case, the wisdom of the old adage that to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive. It means that you may want to just get lost and, at the end of the day, find a taxi to where you spend your nights. Even more important is to locate the major bookshops and spend some time there. Even in a digital world, they do have proper bookshops in literate countries.
This ritual of visiting the bookshops is to be preceded by a conversation with some local intellectuals and fellow journalists to choose one recent book of fiction that is also translated into English to reach out to the spirit of the times. I have a collection of books that I gathered during similar assignments. I tried this in Seoul too and after creating a stir in a large bookshop was able to get a paperback copy of a bestseller whose title I did not find very attractive.
It is South Korea’s good luck that it has ethnic and linguistic homogeneity. Its citizens live and work and dream in their own language. On this front, Pakistan is in a perilous situation. The lesson for us, then, is to resolve our language problems so that an equitable system of education is able to promote social mobility solely on the basis of merit.
It was Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin and I immediately started reading it. For me, it was a manual to understand South Korean society and how it had been transformed during the same period when military rule laid the foundation of economic growth and a radical movement in which students played an important role and laid the foundation of democracy. For me, this very sentimental novel was an explanation of how South Korea did it.
In fact, I want to use this novel to finally underline the lessons that Pakistan can learn from South Korea. In addition, it would underline the most crucial barriers that we must cross to make Pakistan a truly democratic and economically advanced nation. In fact, the prescription that emerges is so run of the mill that I feel a little embarrassed in stating it. Simply, it is education, including of girls. And it would matter when families struggling to rise above poverty in their rural setting are aware of the value of education and hard work. For them to make this effort, it would be necessary to ensure that merit is respected and opportunities for upward social mobility are subject to justice and fair play.
It may be hard for Pakistanis to believe that when Please Look After Mom was published in the Korean language in 2009, it sold a million copies within 10 months. Think again. A million copies in a country that is less than one third in population when compared to Pakistan. I would like to use this as the measure of how and why a country makes progress, irrespective of whether it is ruled by the military or by democratically elected leaders. The key here is the intellectual environment and the capacity of the citizens to engage with high culture.
This book that I am talking about has won many awards and its English translation has been critically acclaimed. It is about an old, ailing mother who goes missing at a subway station in Seoul and the story is about the family’s search for their mother. In the process, you get an authentic picture of contemporary life in South Korea.
It is South Korea’s good luck that it has ethnic and linguistic homogeneity. Its citizens live and work and dream in their own language. On this front, Pakistan is in a very difficult and potentially perilous situation. The lesson for us, then, is to resolve our language problems so that an equitable system of education is able to promote social mobility solely on the basis of merit.
Like in China and Japan, the academic environment in South Korea is extremely competitive. Getting into a prestigious university is a prerequisite to success. The entire society is thrown into a state of turbulence when examinations are held for admission to the leading universities.
Essentially, the point I am trying to make is that it is the development of the human and technological resources of a country that leads to a functioning democracy. How else could a Far Eastern country, with its population of 50 million, create the largest cell phone company in the world? And also the ‘Gangnam Style’ video.
Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.