‘Miracle on the Han River’ Evaluated with the Perspective of Amartya Sen: The Development Case of South Korea
Author: Hansoal Park
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 06/01/2011
The phrase ‘Miracle on the Han River’ has become part of the development history of South Korea. It refers to the period of highly accelerated economic growth from the ashes of the Korean War to the world’s 13th largest economy, something considered to be impossible by many at the time. Kyung Ae Paik, chair of the Korea Foundation and director of the Center for Korean Research, described this amazing speed of development in her journal: “The densely populated country, with little arable land, virtually no mineral reserves, and an excessively heavy military burden, has recorded one of the highest rates of economic growth of any country.…Since independence in 1945, South Korea has evolved from a state of poverty characterized by periodic hunger and starvation to a model case of the newly industrializing countries in the world.” South Korea has been relying on an export-led approach to development, with manufactured products such as electronics, textiles, ships, automobiles, and steel. Samsung Group and Hyundai-Kia have grown up as massive conglomerates.
With these factors as an engine, South Korea’s GNP marked an average annual growth rate of 8 percent with many peaks over 10 percent from 1953 to 1990. Specifically, South Korea achieved an increase in GDP from approximately 1.3 billion dollars to a trillion dollars during 1953 to 2007, and increase in overall exports from approximately 23 million dollars to 372 billion dollars during 1948 to 2008. In other words, GDP in 2007 is 770 times larger than in 1953, and overall exports in 2008 are 16,000 times larger than in 1948.
Based on these noteworthy records, U.S. President Barack Obama has recommended South Korea several times as a model for other developing countries to learn from. Obama said: “In fact, Kenya was a more affluent country than South Korea when my father first came to the States to study (in 1950)… There is no reason African countries cannot do what South Korea did.”
Then the question is, how did South Korea achieve this rapid development? The development model of South Korea has been popularly studied among developing countries. The opinion regarding the “Miracle on the Han River” varies. Park Chung Hee, the president of South Korea from 1963 to 1979, has always been referred to as the most influential person in the development history of the country. During the time that he seized power though a coup d’état in 1961 and until he was assassinated in 1979, he contributed to the industrialization and the enlargement of markets during his regime. He is well known not only for his own practical policies and strong leadership, but also for his repressive policies against the fundamental human rights of citizens. In a nutshell, he recorded both incredibly successful development and remarkably harsh human rights abuse at the same time.
Based on these facts, now we have another question: whether human rights repression is helpful for achieving rapid development. This can be a radical example that opposes ‘Development as Freedom’ – a concept that the famous scholar Amartya Sen emphasized in his book. Amartya Sen emphasized that development should be achieved with human dignity. Hani Sayed commented on this interesting opposition between Park’s regime and Sen’s ideas in his journal: “Korea, or China will rank high as success stories (…), but they will rank very low for Sen.”
This paper is concerned with the question posed above: is human rights repression an inevitable factor for rapid economic development? This paper will analyze and evaluate Park’s regime from Sen’s perspective, particularly with the concept of Development as Freedom, and ask whether Park’s regime was completely against Sen’s idea. To achieve this, despite a large amount of policies that Park had conducted during his regime, this paper will be focused on his human capacity building policies. Also, several human rights abuses that are relevant to this topic during his regime will be described, as well.
Human Rights Repression and Human Development under Park’s Regime
Although it is largely agreed that Park’s regime was a harsh authoritarian system, a large number of scholars from developing countries give high credit to his regime. Mortuza Khaled, a professor at the University of Rajshahi in Bangladesh, praised him as an unprecedented leader of South Korea. It seems that the rapid development of South Korea impressed many developing countries. It is true that South Korea has developed in its own unique manner while some developing countries have failed in rapid development due to the Washington Consensus, lack of good leadership, or other reasons. This fact could have enhanced the idea that South Korea could successfully develop thanks to ‘a brilliant leader’, Park Chung Hee, who knew what to do for his country.
However, when it comes to debates regarding Park Chung Hee inside South Korea, it is never easy to reach a conclusion that most people can agree with. Under his regime, the right to freedom of expression and several fundamental political rights were severely ignored to maintain this dictatorship. Even the right to life was ignored to keep him safe. Thus, South Koreans have complicated feelings about the man, and this inevitably plays a large role in any assessment of the era. Many of the people who went through that era still remain alive and active. Some of them greatly benefited from his regime, and some of them are victims who suffered torture, imprisonment, enforced poverty or other deprivations of their rights; plus, others had relatives and close friends who were persecuted or even sent to their deaths.
Nak-Chung Paik, a professor emeritus of English literature at Seoul National University, emphasized difficulties in internal discussions about Park’s regime in her journal: “…no scholarly account would be adequate unless the scholar paid attention to these living voices – and particularly those of the victims, if only because their voices were for a long time actively suppressed and, even when they become audible at last, would not easily translate into ‘objective data’ that scholars prefer to deal with.”
It is deeply questioned whether this human rights repression contributed to any kind of economic development during his regime. It probably helped him to seize power for more than 18 years. However, this has to be considered as his individual political interest but not as a national interest. The human rights repressions mentioned above were unnecessary to achieve development.
The most controversial human rights repression regards labour rights and related economic rights. Paik described in her journal: “Indeed, this very nostalgia for Park betokens the worst legacies of his era: its indifference to basic rights (including the rights of entrepreneurs to run their business without arbitrary Government interference), insensitivity to human suffering, aversion to solving problems through dialogue and compromise, and ignorance of any individual or communal aspirations larger than the beggar’s philosophy of ‘Let’s live well’.” Individual economic rights were repressed during his rule; however, it was not done for his personal interest but for totalitarian interests to achieve faster development – and this is the most controversial part.
Aside from its “Five-Year Plan” for economic development, Park’s regime was also famous for its ‘can-do’ spirit to empower the domestic labour force. In his annual speech in 1967, he left with the famous words: “Until our descendants ask us what we did during our lifetime, we shall live to answer them with pride that ‘we worked, and worked.’” He persuaded people to be patient with harsh labour, in order to make a better society for their grandchildren. People were participative with this idea, since there was a communal aspiration for a better life. Park always emphasized that they would never achieve a better life if they did not defeat poverty. Both the people and Park believed that their suffering was part of an effort towards a greater goal, instead of just individual sacrifices. With this strategy, South Korea could enjoy a large, educated, and cheap labour force, and it was indeed the engine to boost the state’s development. In addition, another question arises: whether the cheap labour force was inevitable. The answer is still controversial. It could be true that it was inevitable since South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. However, it would be dangerous to conclude that sustaining low wages is the best answer to achieve development.
After improvement in basic human needs, his policy was focused on rural development and human capacity building. Dependent on aid from developed countries, he emphasized the importance of human development. He supported schools by distributing corn soup to encourage children to go to primary school, and soon he enforced the regulation to support higher education. His regime was also famous for offering middle school and high school level education at night, to whomever worked in the factories during the day. Those who enrolled in these education courses were mostly young girls who had been denied the right to education because of the Confucian cultural context.
IRIN news reported that “By the 1970s, Korea had achieved 100 percent adult literacy and the focus had turned to technical education. Between 1970 and 1985, South Korea’s spending on each student rose by 355 percent, compared with 38 percent in Kenya and 13 percent in Pakistan.” The Korean government had a clear idea of the importance of human capital in the achievement of development in all sectors and at all levels. Park’s aim was to create nothing less than a modern nation able to compete with the best in science, technology and industry, a staggering ambition for a country, which, in 1961, was on a par with Ethiopia. During 1945 to 1975, numbers in middle schools increased by 709 percent, in academic high schools by 1,287 percent, in vocational high schools by 1,432 percent, and in higher education by 3,794 percent.
Evaluation with Sen’s ideas
It is interesting to analyze the case of Park’s rule, since his regime does satisfy Sen’s ideas to a certain degree, at least on the surface. Both regarded an adequate food distribution system as a common base for development. Some features of the “capacities approach” concept were fulfilled under Park’s regime, including: good health, nourishment and shelter, and participation in the life of the community. Park also emphasized these basic rights, and considered defeating poverty as the most important concern.
However, it is very critical to highlight that human development and capacity building under Park’s regime was not aimed at enhancing individuals’ self-respect, but to accelerate state development. Sen suggested freedom as a means of development, whereas under Park’s plan it was rather a goal. Park used repression as a means of development, believing that human rights would be automatically improved along with rapid development. Although Park’s regime shared Sen’s perspective on poverty, Sen would have found it unacceptable since it contradicted his position on the respect of human dignity and rights.
Then, if Park Chung Hee had given up his power after the first half of his 18-year regime, what would have happened in the state? This is the most unproductive but popularly debated question in contemporary Korean society. It is agreed that he deserves compliments for the locally adaptable direction to development and for some brilliant human development policies. However, considering that these clever plans were mostly conducted in his early era, I suggest that the labor force of South Korea already had enough potential to achieve further development after 10 years of his regime. Thus, I carefully suggest that his plan could have fallen within Sen’s idea had he retired from power earlier, after assuring basic human needs but before he started conducting a severe degree of human rights abuses in order to keep his dictatorship safe.
Park’s aim was to achieve rapid development in order to help citizens live with human dignity in the future. However, his plan wanted people to sacrifice their political and economic rights, and he thought this process was inevitable. In order to give them those rights back as soon as possible, he emphasized rapid development. Part of his plan was remarkably successful, but he repressed human rights to an unnecessarily extreme degree to keep his regime in power. Amartya Sen would not give high scores to Park’s regime, since his government used repression as a means to develop South Korea. For Sen, Park’s case would be one of the examples of economic consequentialism, a concept that he has severely criticized. However, this paper found common ideas between Park and Sen in the early era of his regime, in particular with regards to the fight against poverty and its relation with the concept of “individual capacity”. However, Sen regards this individual capacity as the freedom that should be preserved during development, while Park considered it as a useful engine for development that the state has to control. South Korea’s case provides a useful lesson: that human development plays a huge role in economic development; therefore, development must be achieved through human capacity building. However, the repression of human rights does not guarantee development. These rights should never be disregarded for the longevity of an authoritarian regime that justifies its actions for the sake of rapid development. In this case, the ends must not justify the means.
Khaled, Mortuza. (2007). Park Chung-hee’s Industrialization Policy and its Lessons for Developing Countries: A Paper for the World Congress for Korean Studies.
McGinn, N., Snodgrass, D., Kim Yung Bong, Kim Shin-Bok & Kim Quee-Young. (1980). Education and Development in Korea, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
McKay, John. (2005). South Korea’s Education and Skills Development: Some Lessons From Africa, Global Best Practice, The South African Institute of International Affairs.
Paik, Nak-chung. (2004). How to Assess the Park Chung Hee Era and Korean Development: the second keynote address of the International Korean Studies Conference on ’The Park Era: A Reassessment After Twenty-five Years’, held at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia, 10-13 November 2004.
Park, Kyung Ae. (1993). Women and Development: The Case of South Korea, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Jan., 1993), pp. 127
Sayed, Hani. (2010). The Post-Development State: 2. On the Role of the State in Economic Development.
AFRICA: Need to focus on secondary education. (2005). Article of IRIN Africa on 10 February 2005, Johannesburg.
Korea is a role model for Africa: Obama. (2009, 07 11). Korea Times.
River of Life River Han / Hangang. (2010). Rivers of the World: A themes festival project delivered in partnership with the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms with support from HSBC Global Education Programme.
Statistics Korea. http://www.kostat.go.kr/
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 Park, Kyung Ae. (1993). Women and Development: The Case of South Korea, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Jan., 1993), pp. 127
 River of Life River Han / Hangang. cit.
 Park, Kyung Ae. cit. pp.127
 Statistics Korea. http://www.kostat.go.kr/
Korea is a role model for Africa: Obama. (2009, 07 11). Korea Times.
 Sayed, Hani. (2010). The Post-Development State: 2. On the Role of the State in Economic Development.
 See “Park Chung-hee’s Industrialization Policy and its Lessons for Developing Countries”: Khaled, Mortuza. (2007). A Paper for the World Congress for Korean Studies.
 Paik, Nak-chung. (2004). How to Assess the Park Chung Hee Era and Korean Development: the second keynote address of the International Korean Studies Conference on ’The Park Era: A Reassessment After Twenty-five Years’, held at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia, 10-13 November 2004.
 AFRICA: Need to focus on secondary education. (2005). Article of IRIN Africa on 10 February 2005, Johannesburg.
 McKay, John. (2005). South Korea’s Education and Skills Development: Some Lessons From Africa, Global Best Practice, The South African Institute of International Affairs.
 McGinn, N., Snodgrass, D., Kim Yung Bong, Kim Shin-Bok & Kim Quee-Young. (1980). Education and Development in Korea, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Bio: Hansoal Park is a Masters student at the University for Peace in the International Law and Settlement of Disputes programme.