Bad Samaritans

After he had come to power in a military coup in 1961, General Park turned ‘civilian’ and won three successive elections. His electoral victories were propelled by his success in launching the country’s economic ‘miracle’ through his Five Year Plans for Economic Development. But the victories were also ensured by election rigging and political dirty tricks. His third and supposedly final term as president was due to end in 1974, but Park just could not let go.Halfway through his third term, he staged what Latin Americans call an x`‘auto-coup’. This involved dissolving the parliament and establishing a rigged electoral system to guarantee him the presidency for life. His excuse was that the country could ill afford the chaos of democracy. It had to defend itself against North Korean communism, the people were told, and accelerate its economic development. His proclaimed goal of raising the country’s per capita income to 1, 000 US dollars by 1981 was considered overly ambitious, bordering on delusional. (Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans (p. 6). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

President Park launched the ambitious Heavy and Chemical Industrialization (HCI) programme in 1973. The first steel mill and the first modern shipyard went into production, and the first locally designed cars (made mostly from imported parts) rolled off the production lines. New firms were set up in electronics, machinery, chemicals and other advanced industries. During this period, the country’s per capita income grew phenomenally by more than five times, in US dollar terms, between 1972 and 1979. Park’s apparently delusional goal of $1,000 per capita income by 1981 was actually achieved four years ahead of schedule. Exports grew even faster, increasing nine times, in US dollar terms, between 1972 and 1979.4 (Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans (p. 7). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

The country’s obsession with economic development was fully reflected in our education. We learned that it was our patriotic duty to report anyone seen smoking foreign cigarettes. The country needed to use every bit of the foreign exchange earned from its exports in order to import machines and other inputs to develop better industries. Valuable foreign currencies were really the blood and sweat of our ‘industrial soldiers’ fighting the export war in the country’s factories. Those squandering them on frivolous things, like illegal foreign cigarettes, were ‘traitors’. I don’t believe any of my friends actually went as far as reporting such ‘acts of treason’. But it did feed the gossip mill when kids saw foreign cigarettes in a friend’s house. The friend’s father – it was almost invariably men who smoked – would be darkly commented on as an unpatriotic and therefore immoral, if not exactly criminal, individual. (Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans (pp. 7-8). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

Spending foreign exchange on anything not essential for industrial development was prohibited or strongly discouraged through import bans, high tariffs and excise taxes (which were called luxury consumption taxes). ‘Luxury’ items included even relatively simple things, like small cars, whisky or cookies. I remember the minor national euphoria when a consignment of Danish cookies was imported under special government permission in the late 1970s. For the same reason, foreign travel was banned unless you had explicit government permission to do business or study abroad. As a result, despite having quite a few relatives living in the US, I had never been outside Korea until I travelled to Cambridge at the age of 23 to start as a graduate student there in 1986. (Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans (p. 8). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

(….) Korea’s economic ‘miracle’ was not, of course, without its dark sides. Many girls from poor families in the countryside were forced to find a job as soon as they left primary school at the age of 12 – to ‘get rid of an extra mouth’ and to earn money so that at least one brother could receive higher education. Many ended up as housemaids in urban middle-class families, working for room and board and, if they were lucky, a tiny amount of pocket money. The other girls, and the less fortunate boys, were exploited in factories where conditions were reminiscent of 19th-century ‘dark satanic mills’ or today’s sweatshops in China. In the textile and garment industries, which were the main export industries, workers often worked 12 hours or more in very hazardous and unhealthy conditions for low pay. Some factories refused to serve soup in the canteen, lest the workers should require an extra toilet break that might wipe out their wafer-thin profit margins. Conditions were better in the newly emerging heavy industries – cars, steel, chemicals, machinery and so on – but, overall, Korean workers, with their average 53–4 hour working week, put in longer hours than just about anyone else in the world at the time. (Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans (pp. 9-10). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

Urban slums emerged. Because they were usually up in the low mountains that comprise a great deal of the Korean landscape, they were nicknamed ‘Moon Neighbourhoods’, after a popular TV sitcom series of the 1970s. Families of five or six would be squashed into a tiny room and hundreds of people would share one toilet and a single standpipe for running water. Many of these slums would ultimately be cleared forcefully by the police and the residents dumped in far-flung neighbourhoods, with even worse sanitation and poorer road access, to make way for new apartment blocks for the ever-growing middle class. If the poor could not get out of the new slums fast enough (though getting out of the slums was at least possible, given the rapid growth of the economy and the creation of new jobs), the urban sprawl would catch up with them and see them rounded up once again and dumped in an even more remote place. Some people ended up scavenging in the city’s main rubbish dump, Nanji Island. Few people outside Korea were aware that the beautiful public parks surrounding the impressive Seoul Football Stadium they saw during the 2002 World Cup were built literally on top of the old rubbish dump on the island (which nowadays has an ultra-modern eco-friendly methane-burning power station, which taps into the organic material dumped there). (Chang, Ha-Joon. Bad Samaritans (p. 10). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

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