With its Alps-like peaks shrouded in layers of sunlight and fog, Korea has long been called the “land of the morning calm.” Serene landscapes of the Orient notwithstanding, you have to get up pretty early these days to see any sort of a.m. tranquility along the booming boulevards of Seoul.
Commerce crisscrosses the Korean countryside like supercharged neon fiber-optic circuits in the world’s most Internet-wired, smartphone-enabled country. Yes, the present-day landscape of the 5,000-year-old Asian peninsula-nation seems a world away from a horizon that 60 years ago was strewn with postwar refugee camps from the East China Sea to the eastern shore.
When World War II ended in 1945 with the defeat of Japan, nearby Korea was artificially divided at the 38th parallel between soon-to-be cold war combatants, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. There was to have been a national election, but the North aligned itself with the Soviets and the Communist Chinese and sprung a surprise invasion on the South on June 25, 1950.
A war-weary United States honored its 1882 friendship treaty with the democratic South and summoned United Nations help from 15 other countries in order to reverse the North’s advances. After the 1953 U.N. armistice was signed, an uneasy peace settled and remained. A country that had never in its 5,000-year history invaded another country and that had once had prided itself on being a “hermit kingdom” had been partitioned.
After the Korean War, the South struggled to rebuild and rebirth itself before eventually emerging in a rags to riches tale that has left the Communist North literally in the dark. Korea was a nation so needy it once not only received significant aid and support from the U.S., but also from the Philippines and Thailand. From 1950 to 1953, South Korea was literally one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita GDP of just $67. In a span of less than six decades, their GDP has grown to almost $30,000. In terms of purchasing power, South Korea now scores higher than the average of the European Union countries.
So what has happened to create what’s been called “The Miracle on the Han,” a reference to the river that winds its way around Seoul? Korean historians and cultural experts attribute it in part to the glimpse of modernization that came by way of Allied soldiers who arrived from all corners of the globe when the Korean economy was in shambles and cities like Seoul and Pusan had been reduced to mere shantytowns.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, South Korea today is not only the world’s eighth-largest trade economy, it is just the seventh country in the world (following the U.S., Japan, France, Germany, Italy, and Britain) to join the ranks of the “20-50 Club.” Membership in this vaunted circle of nations is reserved for developed countries with at least $20,000 in per capita income and more than 50 million people. Native residents take great pride in so quickly growing from a poor aid recipient to a major donor nation, as well they should.
South Koreans are also proud of being regarded as a full democracy in the world’s diverse community of nations. The annual EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) placed Korea as the 20th-ranked democracy out of 167 nations studied, and highest among Asian countries. Contrasted with the despotic communist regime in the North, America’s foremost ally in the region has become a popular model for many emerging democracies hoping to bridge the gap between developing and developed countries.
From a relative “nobody” to a definite “somebody” on the world stage, from wartime rubble to a global powerhouse, Korea’s secret sauce for success is a mix of many things – and may best be symbolized by Seoul’s signature food dish, bi bim bop. This classic Korean culinary treat consists of warm rice mixed with sautéed, seasoned vegetables and meat and is flavored with gochujang, a chili pepper paste. A fried egg on top adds a sunny disposition to the mixture of flavor-rich, healthy ingredients that are analogous to the many cultural qualities responsible for Korea’s present-day success.
Spicy? Yes. The passionate conversation and negotiating styles of Koreans have led them to be characterized as both the “Irish” and the “Italians” of Asia. Intelligent? Very. Korean student test scores consistently rank among the highest in the developed world, and 80 percent of Koreans achieve a university degree. Hardworking? Koreans are legendary workaholics. Their success in education and their staggering economic growth are both attributable to a society that is willing to put in more work per week than just about anywhere. Middle and high school students attend classes six days a week and most also hire tutors. Businessmen work six or seven days a week. Even Korean government officials typically go back to their offices in the evening, as members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did following a late night banquet I recently attended in Seoul.
Koreans are also good at modeling and improving upon the successes of their competitors. For an example, look no further than the fierce market-share battles between Korean electronic giant Samsung Galaxy’s smartphones and Apple iPhones. Samsung has surged ahead in sales by some measures. For a company that began as a mercantile business with just 35 employees to grow to its present size of 325,000 employees worldwide is a remarkable achievement.
All of this in a small, once-rural country salvaged by the ultimate sacrifice of more than 33,000 U.S. soldiers in what has been dubbed as America’s “Forgotten War.” It is indeed forgotten by many Americans, but not by a grateful nation that even today honors the return of American Korean War veterans. Korea’s Ministry of Veterans Affairs pays all expenses and half the transportation costs for five days for American veterans who choose to visit.
On my recent trip, I was especially struck by two things: the central role of the family in Korean society and the high value parents place on the education of their children. Traditional Confucian respect for education results in teachers receiving almost universal respect and societal support. Modernity, too, has found its way into today’s Korean classroom. The country’s Ministry of Science and Technology has recently digitized its entire elementary-level educational textbooks, and Korean students can be seen reading them everywhere on their laptops.
Asked whether she is concerned about modern Western influences on her middle-school age son, my Seoul tour guide, Ms. Lee said, “I don’t worry about things like drugs. The only ‘addiction’ I see with my son is reading and re-reading the latest Harry Potter book in English.”
South Korea once benefited immensely from America’s support and example. The Korean people seem always to remember and honor this, while also forging their own path and finding their own identity. Family, education, and hard work energize communities from the mountainous green countryside to coastal fishing villages to Seoul, the capital. And so it may be that “the student” has a little something to show the teacher, all these decades later.
More than 130 years have passed since the signing of the friendship treaty between the U.S. and Korea. Much has changed, but the alliance remains. After all, that is what friends are for.