By Noah Smith
ON SUNDAY NIGHT, there was widespread rejoicing when the South Korean film Parasite received the Academy Award for best picture along with several other awards. Not only was this the first such win for a movie in a language other than English, but to many it represented a long-sought victory for Korean popular culture.
It’s not the first such victory. In the past decade, Korean music and TV shows have exploded in global popularity. The Korean band BTS is the first since the Beatles to release three Billboard No. 1 albums in a single year. Their US concerts are wildly popular, and their fandom transcends both region and ethnicity. China is crazy for K-pop, too. And Korean drama programs, already hugely popular across East Asia, are making inroads around the world.
But the Korean wave isn’t just a global cultural fad; it’s the capstone of a unique and remarkable national growth story.
Many countries that are rich and industrialized today once possessed colonial empires from which they extracted vast amounts of natural resources. A handful of others are European states, such as Switzerland, that avoided being colonized themselves. But Korea never had an empire, and it was a Japanese colony from 1910 until 1945. Shortly after the end of that period of subjugation, the entire peninsula was devastated by the Korean War. In 1960, South Korea’s per capita gross domestic product was about $1,000 in today’s dollars — about the same as modern-day Ethiopia.
At first it seemed as if North Korea would outshine its more capitalist neighbor to the south. It recovered faster after the war, and in 1964 economist Joan Robinson was gushing with praise for what she called the North Korean “miracle.” But about that same time, South Korea’s fortunes turned around after military dictator Park Chung-hee took power in a 1961 coup.
Many dictators loot their countries for themselves and their cronies. But Park was different. Although politically repressive, he focused his efforts on turning South Korea into a technologically advanced, economically powerful country. Park established effective bureaucracies, such as the Economic Planning Board and the Ministry of Trade and Industry, to direct the country’s economy.
Park didn’t care whether a policy was capitalist or socialist as long as it served his industrial policy goals. Believing that a domestic steel industry was important for development, he created a state-owned steel company called POSCO. He nationalized banks. Though he allowed business conglomerates called chaebol to grow large and powerful, Park constantly reminded business leaders that they were subordinate to the government, requiring executives to report to him personally and even tossing some in jail for corruption.
Above all, Park sought to increase exports. Companies that sold goods overseas were rewarded with cheap credit and various subsidies. As author Joe Studwell and others have documented, this export focus forced South Korean companies out of the cozy domestic market and into the hypercompetitive global arena, where they faced off against top industrial powers such as Japan and the US. Becoming internationally competitive required Korean companies to copy foreign technologies, and it brought in teams of overseas experts or hired retired engineers from overseas.
Park’s strategy wasn’t without its limitations and failures. Slowing growth and Park’s repressive governance led to discontent in the 1970s, and Park was assassinated in 1979. But the country turned out not to depend so much on the vision of one man. Growth powered ahead, and the country became a democracy in 1987 after a wave of protests. Ten years later, the International Monetary Fund began to classify South Korea as an “advanced nation.”
As of today, South Korea is indisputably a prosperous nation. In addition to its growing cultural clout, it is technologically advanced, boasting (among other things) the world’s most successful electronics company and one of the top automakers. That excellence looks likely to continue, as South Korea spends more of its economic output on research than its most advanced rivals.
Three generations after its decolonization, 67 years after being devastated by war, this resource-poor country now has living standards that almost rival that of the UK, whose empire once covered more than a quarter of the planet.
South Korea still has many challenges: A few big companies dominate the economy, and it’s too dependent on China as a market and as a production base. Women too often are excluded from corporate and political power, its social safety net needs strengthening and its population is rapidly aging.
Yet South Korea’s rise has demonstrated something absolutely astounding: that the dead hand of colonialism need no longer rule the destiny of a modern nation. Going from poverty to riches wasn’t easy; some of the countries hoping to follow in South Korea’s footsteps, such as Vietnam, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, will inevitably stumble in that quest. But South Korea is proof of the concept — a singular success, serving as a beacon of hope and ideas to the fast-growing nations of tomorrow.
And providing some entertaining movies and music, too.