As the 1988 Seoul Olympics grew closer, Western interest in Korea gathered pace. The country was described as a tiger economy that, like Japan, might one-day challenge Western companies in many fields.
Little was known about South Korea beyond memories of the Korean War and the myths of M.A.S.H. It was a different world, pre-internet _ fax machines just passing into common use _ and China was still a closed mysterious, underdeveloped, country.
Against this background, an American magazine for whom I was an Asia correspondent sent me to Seoul to discover what was going on and who were the ``chaebol.’’ It was my first visit to a country under military rule and I was not surprised that a whiff of tear gas lingered in the air.
At the end of one interview, my host asked me an odd question. ``In a contest between a Korean and a Japanese, who would win?’’ Tell me, I ventured. ``If the contest were to pit one Korean against one Japanese, the Korean would win every time, even with one arm tied behind his back. But a group of Japanese would always win against a group of Koreans.’’
Why so, I asked. ``A group of Japanese would always reach a consensus about what to do, allocate tasks, and set to work. Meanwhile the Koreans would still be arguing furiously about whose plan to follow.’’
Amusing, yes, but there is more than a grain of truth in the story. The combative spirit, fierce sense of independence, and urge to compete have undoubtedly helped Korea survive the vicissitudes of history, pinioned between two much larger, acquisitive, and powerful countries.
Fast forward to the present. Korea, now a young democracy has new challenges in a rapidly changing world. The virtues of the ``Korean Way’’ go hand in hand with vices that seem especially inimical to further social or economic progress.
Yes, rulers are now elected democratically, but once in power, it is easy to see old authoritarian habits lingering on. The divergence between the rule of law and the enforcement of law, even on things as basic as driving or construction is deeply worrying.
Winston Churchill famously remarked, ``Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.’’
By themselves, democratic elections guarantee neither social, nor economic, nor political progress. The hard work of making it all work productively comes later, and demands just as much effort from the governed as from government.
Though important, land values are not the real issues Korea faces today. For example, creating a vibrant service sector would create new wealth, just as it has in Europe.
In turn, this would demand increasing deregulation, new investment, less corruption, and debate about what kind of society Korea wishes to become.