Stereotypes of the Far East, dominated by images of China and Japan, leave Korea in a vaguer limbo, of acronyms or bestiaries: NICs or Little Tigers. But if the Western traveller does arrive with any idées reçues, they are liable to be soon dispelled. Seoul is now the third largest city in the world, as a municipal unit – bigger than Tokyo or Beijing. Size is no guarantee of modernity, as the desperate inequality and violence of the two greatest of all urban concentrations, São Paulo and Bombay, testify. But that is still the Third World. Seoul is not part of it. What a Londoner notices first is the ways in which the city is more advanced than his own.
Virtually every car on the road – over a million of them – is made in the country, few of them other than saloons, scarcely any looking more than a couple of years old. The Underground, immaculately clean, alerts passengers – in Korean and English – to the next stop (and connections), as it nears each of its 150 stations, pulling in exactly at two diagonal yellow lines on the platform, where those waiting to board queue at a relaxed angle, allowing those alighting to pass between them. Fast trains to the provinces provide seats that swivel out of airline position for face-to-face exchange between family or friends; bursts of ‘French Cancan’, or other – elevated – airs, announce the glide into destinations along the line. At the airport, carrier bags come in strong nylon with wheels. In the university, seminar tables are fitted with corner pieces and pirated photocopies with laminated book covers. This is the country that saw the first use of movable type, in the 13th century, and where the only indexical alphabet – in Peircean terms: letters reproducing the movements of vocalisation – was designed in the 15th century. One is constantly struck by the intelligence brought to the inconspicuous details of living, as if the routines of urban existence were being freshly invented for the first time.
Such technical ingenuity is not, as legend has it about Japan, accompanied by the least social impassivity. An easy-going friendliness marks behaviour towards foreigners. Building workers will cheerfully compete to give street directions; lively matrons in limousines stop to offer a lift to the trudging pedestrian, promptly reverting to their gossip or car-phone once the passenger is installed. As in Mediterranean cultures, this sociability finds one of its expressions in attention to sartorial appearance. In their silk trousers and platform heels, Korean girls outclass their contemporaries in Paris, Rome or Los Angeles for chic any day of the week, can make black lipstick look demure. On the tube, no sight is more startling than the contrast between the willowy forms of this generation and the dumpy shapes of their parents, still often potato-like in closeness to the land.
The economic transformation that has produced this difference is usually imagined to be a lesser variant of the Japanese record, or simply a local version of a larger group that includes Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. In reality, the experience of South Korea is unique. No other society in the world has industrialised in depth as fast. A historical process that took at least three generations in Japan has here been accomplished in one. The tempo of the change has no precedent. In the past twenty years, the exodus from agriculture has been three times greater than in Italy, four times greater than in Japan, five times greater than in France, and seven times greater than in Germany. The proportion of the population living in cities of over one million is now the highest on earth.
Since the Sixties, the compound rate of growth has been more than twice that of Japan, and the industrial configuration it has created is a long way from that of Taiwan, let alone the greenhouse prosperity of Singapore or Hong Kong. Internationally competitive in cars, steel, shipbuilding and semi-conductors, South Korea is strong at once in classic heavy industry, mainstream consumer goods and frontier electronic components. Technical sophistication is sustained by an extraordinary degree of financial integration. No other advanced economy has such a concentrated organisation of capital. Sales of the top four conglomerates – chaebol, formed by analogy with ‘warlord’, means ‘cash-lord’ – are equivalent to over four-fifths of GDP.
The two greatest disasters of modern Korean history created some of the conditions for all this. Japanese colonialism left behind a transport network and levels of literacy far above the regional average; postwar grants and loans – in effect, reparations – from Tokyo helped finance take-off, in which technological transfers also played a role. American power, responsible for dividing the country and fighting off the North, after immense destruction imposed land reform and bank-rolled reconstruction; later it offered mercenary service to 300,000 troops and lucrative contracts for the building industry in Vietnam, where the experience was gained for Korean firms to make their killing in the Middle East construction boom of the Seventies. The toll of empire in Korea was huge, but privileges perversely went with it.
The critical engine of modernisation, however, was indigenous. The military dictatorship installed by Park Chung Hi in 1961, whose underlying structure lasted for some three decades, forged the most effective developmental state of the epoch. Putting its US and Japanese assets to good use, it deliberately fostered the growth of the chaebol and assigned them the export targets its planners selected. Neoclassical inhibitions were never allowed to stand in the way of pragmatic distortions of the market. High but flexible tariffs were combined with forced savings and virtually complete government control of credit – through nationalised banks, administrative licensing and discriminatory taxation – to direct investment in strategic sectors. In other words, exactly what the international consensus of the Eighties and Nineties, not merely of the economics profession but of political parties across the spectrum, has held to be the route to ruin. This massive financial and technological dirigisme was accompanied by an extraordinary educational drive, absorbing a fifth of the budget. Today the proportion of South Korean youth benefiting from (genuine) higher education is nearly 40 per cent, far higher than it is in Japan, let alone the UK. Last but not least, the military rulers policed the most brutal work regime in the industrialised world. In the mid-Eighties, the average labour time was 53 hours a week.