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.

The levels of repression required to enforce this kind of discipline were draconian. Justified in the name of vigilance against the danger from the North, an immense security apparatus was constructed: in the mid-Sixties the KCIA had 350,000 agents out of a population of 30 million, dwarfing the NKVD at its height; the dungeons were filled with opponents of every kind; torture was routine. Yet the regime, which as a front line of the Free World could not dispense with the formality of elections, was never able to crush opposition completely. Resistance was headed, again and again, by one social group: students have battled against governments in many countries round the world, First, Second and Third, but nowhere have they fought so repeatedly and effectively as in South Korea. Three times, their uprisings have brought down tyrannies.

In April 1960, after marching on the Presidential Palace in Seoul and suffering heavy casualties from police fire, students triggered the fall of Syngman Rhee – only to see the Armed Forces led by Park Chung Hi seize power a year later. In October 1979 student demonstrations in Pusan, which included attacks on police stations, set off riots by local workers and residents. When Park prepared to put the rebellion down with paratroops, his intelligence chief – fearful of popular reaction – lured to him to a KCIA retreat and shot him over the dinner-table. After a brief interval, marked by deepening campus and labour mobilisation, a military faction led by a dullard thug who had been one of Park’s henchmen, Chun Doo-Hwan, restored dictatorial rule with a shoot-out at the Defence Ministry, and wholesale massacre of civilians in Kwangju. In June 1987, after an activist at Seoul National University had been tortured to death, huge student protests paralysed the centre of the city. Across the country pitched battles with riot police, raining down 350,000 tear-gas projectiles, lasted for three weeks, until Chun was forced to concede free elections. All this occurred during the fastest boom in Korean history. The measure of democracy Koreans enjoy today is essentially due to this heroic record.

The student movement, especially in the Eighties, when its demands for ‘Autonomy, Democracy, Unification, won wide sympathy, was a hotbed of radical ideas, many highly dogmatic, others adapted from strains within Western Marxism. The feisty labour organisations that sprang up after Chun’s defeat, with a vigorous wave of – mostly successful – strikes, were not unaffected by this ferment. The theatre of mobilisation, highly developed in Korea, with its repertoire of march, song, dance, spread from universities to factories. Even churches were caught up in the contagious energies released by student activism. Yet out of these seismic shocks has emerged one of the flattest political landscapes. Korean democracy has yet to produce any party of coherent principle with electoral appeal.

In 1988 the Parliamentary opposition split between the two rival candidates of Kim Young Sam, from the south-east around Pusan, and Kim Dae Jung, from the south-west round Kwangju, allowing Chun’s military colleague Roh Tae Woo, a key conspirator in the coup of 1979-80, to win the Presidential elections. In 1990 Kim Young Sam joined forces with both Roh and Kim Jong Pil, Park’s key plotter in the coup of 1961 and creator of the KCIA, to form a single party that elected him President two years later. The victim of this betrayal, Kim Dae Jung, is now manoeuvring to match it by making an alliance of his own with Kim Jong Pil for the next poll in 1998. At the ballot-box, voters have consistently divided along blindly regional, rather than social or ideological lines. Provincial clientage generates monolithic results. In their respective fiefs, the two principal Kims can count on levels of support – over 70 percent – virtually unknown outside dictatorial systems. In no country does the gap between what one might call the pays passionnel and the pays électoral appear so great.

The tension between them can be seen in the courtroom drama in Seoul, where Generals Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh Tae Woo were recently tried for their crimes in power. This spectacle, unthinkable in most of Latin America, is testimony to the depth of the moral anger that their rule aroused in the country, and the popular pressure for a truthful reckoning to be made of the slaughter in Kwangju. Immediately preceding it were two rival television series, depicting the crisis that led to the assassination of Park and the putsch by Chun. Chun and Roh were arrested soon afterwards. But if their indictment was an expression of the continuing strength of the ethics of conviction in Korean politics, it was also a move within its cynical mechanics of calculation. Kim Young Sam, having double-crossed the democratic opposition to arrive in power, proceeded to double-cross the generals who helped him get there, in order to bolster his waning esteem in public opinion. It remains to be seen whether the verdicts – Chun condemned to death, Roh to 22 years in jail – will be implemented or suspended.

The episode is typical of Kim Young Sam’s rule. In one sense, it has genuinely consolidated democracy in South Korea: Kim has dismissed hundreds of military and bureaucratic office-holders beholden to the old regime, harassed chaebol tycoons and done away with the occult bank accounts that were one of its principal sluices of corruption. To that extent, greater accountability and transparency in public life have been achieved. But the motivation for these reforms has been no higher than the new President’s drive to increase his own power at the expense of his former allies. The example set by instrumental politics of this kind could prove little less corrupting than the purchase of influence it has ostensibly reduced.

Cat-and-mouse prosecutions of corporate chiefs are regularly employed to humiliate economic power-holders, with the aim of making chaebol bosses more pliable to Presidential whim, rather than altering the structures of big business. Demagogic gestures elsewhere include fanfare demolition of the old headquarters of the colonial Governor-General in Seoul, whose necromantic ground-plan traces the first character (denoting the sun) in ‘Nippon’ – works so far confined to removal of its lantern, with much pomp. Symbolic politics of this sort function to distract public attention from increasing social polarisation and economic insecurity. Under Kim, technocratic privilege has become more entrenched in higher education and government; the country has recently been running a serious trade deficit; large firms are starting to shed jobs at home in favour of cheaper wage-locations abroad.

Meanwhile, the bedrock system of official intimidation has not been touched. The National Security Law, a body of repressive legislation that makes McCarthyism look limp-wristed, remains without even promise of amendment. Trade-union rights continue to be minimal. Amnesty International reports hundreds of political arrests and cases of police torture every year. Anyone looking on the Internet for information about the North faces jail. The only oppositional daily, Han Kyorae – an emblem of Korean civil society, created by donations from 30,000 subscribers, reaching 400,000 readers – is under threat for daring to criticise the President’s son. Parliamentary debate is mired in competing conformities and floor-crossing opportunism.

On the other hand, cultural life – perhaps in part just because of all this – flourishes relatively unscathed. Certainly there has been no collapse of morale of the kind that has followed democratisation in the former Soviet bloc. Censorship was combined with commercialism under the generals, stifling any innovative cinema of the Taiwanese type. Television is laden with soap operas that – so universal is the form – can almost be followed without knowing the language. Syncretism of every kind abounds, from book-malls laden with translations of Deleuze or Lacan, to the forest of crosses in red neon lighting up the night sky in every city, proclaiming the spread of every brand of Christianity. Seoul’s version of Disneyland is called Lotte World, after the sobriquet of the chaebol that runs it: a conglomerate vaunting hotels, department stores and a brand of chewing-gum of the same name which made the fortune of its founder in Japan. How did he choose it? In honour of the fatal heroine of The Sorrows of Young Werther, a romantic hit in high school.

Such palimpsests, however incongruous, are more likely than otherwise to be signs of an underlying vitality. The intellectual scene offers another, very impressive kind. The leading journal of the Korean Left, Ch’angjak-kwa Bip’ yong – Chang-bi for short – or Creation and Criticism, was founded thirty years ago as a quarterly inspired to some extent by Partisan Review. Against the background of the war in Vietnam, and drawing on the writing of Raymond Williams, Sartre, Neruda, it argued for a new kind of civic literature. Initially it was left alone; but then the police started to notice that when they picked up student radicals, copies of the journal were regularly to be found in their rooms. When Park toughened his regime in the mid-Seventies, its editors were pulled in by the KCIA and dismissed from their jobs in the university. After his assassination, Chun’s HQ for Martial Law Enforcement proceeded to arrests and dismissals once again, and in the summer of 1980 banned the magazine.

To get round the prohibition, a special issue – mook – was published as if it were a book, then punished by revocation of the publisher’s licence, setting off mass protests across the country, and messages of support from abroad. After Chun’s fall Chang-bi reappeared, although within a year its editors were once more detained, for publishing a writer’s impressions of the North. Today, under the authority of Paik Nak-chung, the literary critic who founded the journal, a figure of Alain-like serenity and probity, it has a larger circulation than Dissent or New Left Review.

Its nearest equivalents, however, are to be found not so much in any current Western periodicals as in the tradition of the Russian ‘thick journal’ – that 19th-century form combining critical manifestos and serialised novels, poetry and political essays, which survived to such vivid effect into the Soviet epoch, and is now moribund in its homeland. In one sense Chang-bi evokes the world of Pisarev or Tvardovsky: in another, it belongs to that of Jameson or Wallerstein, both of whom it has translated. In a superimposition of times that would have delighted Ernst Bloch, Post-Modernity or cyberspace are debated in the same capacious format as once ostranenie or narodnost. In Korean literature, unlike the performing arts, there is still no great distance between high and popular culture, which helps the journal to thrive. In 1994 its publishing house could sell half a million copies of a volume of poems by an – admittedly glamorous – young divorcée, ruefully feminist recollections of the student turmoil.

Politically, the problems posed by the future unification of Korea, and the historical meaning of the idea of East Asia as a region, are the journal’s central focus. Its distinctive theme, setting it apart as a radical voice in the South, is a critique of what Paik has dubbed the ‘division system’ in the peninsula: that is, the way the Southern and Northern regimes rely on each other as external antagonist in order to maintain internal control. In this unspoken collusion, sustained from abroad, lies – the editors argue – the essential obstacle to an independent Korean democracy. Democratic gains will be secured in the South itself, let alone the North, only to the extent that the system of disunity, of which the National Security Law offers a monument, is dismantled. Conversely, for any democratic life to take root in the North, the impassable barriers to communication that still seal its population absolutely off from the South must come down, and time be given for a natural – necessarily gradual – annealing of the two societies. The German Anschluss of 1990 stands as an awful warning of what otherwise might befall the country.

As it happens, the leading native critic of German unification was in Seoul this spring. Belying his reputation for an abstruse Euro-centrism, Jürgen Habermas delivered an admirably concrete address on the lessons of the German experience for the Korean people, and the differences between the historical situations of the two nations. Unknown to him, the conclusions he reached coincide closely with the leitmotif of the Chang-bi thinkers: ‘progressives must bind the political aim of unification to the idea of realising civic rights.’ Happily, he noted, in South Korea the democratic forces that came out of the universities were also the national forces pressing for reunification. This, of course, is a fundamental difference from the situation in West Germany, where left-liberal opinion – Habermas himself is a good example – was traditionally reserved about the prospect of reunification with the East, allowing it to be substantially appropriated by the Right. It is one of the reasons for hoping that the outcome might be better in Korea.

This contrast, however, forms part of a wider set of variations that are bound to distinguish Korean unification from German unification. Subjective national identity runs much deeper in Korea, the product of an incomparably longer unitary state – going back a thousand years, compared with just over a century in Germany – and of a traumatic experience of modern imperialism, of which it was a victim rather than a moloch. Germany was divided as an aggressor nation after the war, Korea as an object of aggression. The popular appeal of unity has consequently always been far stronger in the latter. In East Germany the state, denying the existence of a common nation, flatly rejected any notion of unification, while in West Germany most of the population showed very little interest in it either.

In Korea there was a complete contrast: the Northern state always formally pressed for unification, and the Southern population was never indifferent to it. Here the crumpled boot of the subordinate was typically on the other foot. The regime in Pyongyang, unlike that in Pankow, was always more independent of outside powers than its rival across the border. In its decline, indeed, this has become a self-defeating isolation. ‘If autonomy in a positive sense must entail power to do what one wishes and needs to for oneself,’ Paik has drily observed, ‘North Korea must surely be rated as one of the more hampered societies in the present world.’ Still, the contrast between the direct operational control of Southern troops by the US and the disappearance of even the most minimal Russian or Chinese influence in the North, forty years after the Korean War, remains an irony of the situation.

The second great difference lies in the relative weight of the two societies that confront each other across the DMZ. East Germany was less than half the size of West Germany in land area, and had only a quarter of its population. It was also much poorer in natural resources. North Korea, on the other hand, has a larger territory than South Korea, half its population, and is better endowed in minerals and energy. It also has a potential nuclear capability which officers in the South are no doubt quietly eyeing, for the day when the American overlord goes and Korea must measure itself against a Japan that has twice conquered it. In the longue durée, the balance of advantage in any unification should be less one-sided.

In the short run, on the other hand, the economic gulf between the two Koreas is far greater than it was between the two Germanies. On the eve of unification, average productivity and per capita income in the DDR were about two-fifths of those in the Bundesrepublik. According to the calculations – not reliable, but credible – of economists in Seoul, in North Korea they are somewhere between a fifth and a tenth of those in South Korea. West German GNP, in turn, was five times larger than that of South Korea today. Ceteris paribus, the financial costs for the South of absorbing the North would dwarf the burdens of German unification.

The Presidential egoism of Kim Young Sam’s Government makes it incapable of any coherent policy towards the North. Ideologically, a sclerotic anti-Communism prompts vague hopes of an apocalyptic downfall of the DPRK, with a Romanian fate for its rulers. Economically, the prospect is too unnerving to contemplate. The Northern regime, in its desperate straits, is looking for foreign investment which the chaebol – hungry for cheap labour as wage costs rise in the South – are eager to supply. But Seoul, which even opposes international food relief for the North, where the FAO calculates two million children are suffering from malnutrition after recent flooding, has kept such projects to a pittance. It is paralysed like Buridan’s ass between the contradictory desires to undermine its rival and to avoid precipitating its collapse. The result is a vicious pettiness that makes even the Clinton Administration’s area policy – benighted enough – look long-sighted.

Tokyo, with less stake in the detritus of the Cold War, has been more willing than Washington or Seoul to send help against flood and famine in the North. But Japan, for all its underlying economic pull, is disabled from playing much of a part in the resolution of the political crisis of the peninsula by its past, which no Korean can forget. Its historic rival in the region is another matter. Korea has twice been the flashpoint in relations between China and Japan, each time with massive consequences for both countries. At the end of the 17th century, Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea brought a military intervention from China that hastened the end of the Ming dynasty. At the end of the 19th, competing imperial expeditions to put down the Tonghak peasant rising in the south west – an enlightened version of the Boxer Rebellion – led to the Sino-Japanese War, which was fought in Korea and gave the virtual quietus to the Quing Empire. On each occasion China’s role was reactive, as it was again at the Yalu in 1950.

Today Beijing, which established diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1991, still remains relatively passive in Korea. But the correlation of regional forces is changing quite fast. His torically Korea, whose political culture is older than that of Japan, faced towards China as the centre of civilisation and imperial suzerain. Down to the mid-19th century, most of its literature was written in classical Chinese; and even now about half the vocabulary of Korean, otherwise a completely unrelated language, is of Chinese origin. In the 20th century, Japanese rule and American control have cut Korea off from its secular cultural hinterland. The massive growth of the Chinese economy, however, is bound to reorient the country back towards its traditional interlocutor. Already Korea’s largest trade partner is the PRC-Hong Kong-Taiwan, if they are taken together. Geographically, Seoul is closer to Shanghai than to Tokyo, and air connections are now multiplying to provincial cities in China. Diplomatically, Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing, tenuous though they remain, are better than those with any other capital. The probabilities point to China playing a significant role in the Korean dénouement.

In the end, however, it will be the people of Korea themselves who settle the terms of their reunion. The advantages of those in the South – prosperity and relative freedom – now appear overwhelming. But if an attempt were ever made to extend above the DMZ the political order that now prevails below it, the result is certain to be a macabre disaster. Even in Germany, where the party system in the West was extremely solid and well-rooted, its sudden imposition in the East – in a swarm of carpetbagger politicians, not to speak of bureaucrats and academics – has led to moral disaffection on a wide scale. In Korea, projecting the sterile caciquismo of the Southern regional bosses into the North, where the population has been without contact with its compatriots for fifty years, would be a formula for nightmarish chaos and redivision of the country. The generosity and sense of solidarity needed for any unification worthy of the name could only come from the kind of liberty Paik and Habermas enjoin.

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Vol. 18 No. 21 · 31 October 1996

Just as Sartre defended Flaubert against vulgar Marxists who said he was bourgeois (‘but not every bourgeois is Flaubert’), so not every tourist is Perry Anderson. His frankly touristic Korean Diary (LRB, 17 October) is a fine piece in many ways; and so rarely does the world’s 11th biggest economy rate two full pages anywhere that we should be grateful, and I am. Enough to overlook (well, almost) the middle-aged bloke who ogles the girls while likening their parents to spuds, and tells us the trains run on time (so to say). Nor am I too bothered by the odd date that the distinguished historian doesn’t quite get spot-on. Kims Dae-jung and Young-sam split in 1987, not 1988; Beijing and Seoul tied the knot in 1992, not 1991; the next election is in 1997, not 1998.

The real trap for the voyager-voyeur is that Korea is so rich and varied that everyone from the SWP to Alfred Sherman and beyond can find kindred spirits there. It’s a heady experience, with Narcissus never far away. So New Left Review’s éminence grise salutes his alter ego Paik Nak-chung, and envies his sales figures (but everything sells better in Korea). And inevitably, the editor of Student Power, the well-red Penguin Special, revels in a polity where student revolt really does topple governments – or does it? The workers did at least as much: odd for a quondam Marxist to play that down. But not so odd as to say: ‘Even churches were caught up in the contagious energies released by student activism.’ In the second most Christian nation in Asia after the Philippines, it was the churches that bred the student movement, not vice versa.

Finally, there’s reunification (or will be), on which our historical materialist collapses in rampant idealism. He of all people should know that revolutions have winners and losers, and so it will be in Korea. Here as everywhere capitalism has triumphed, while socialism (or a grotesque parody thereof) is dying. All that remains to be settled is the precise manner in which the North will make its historical exit, and to pray it will be peaceful. But that unified Korea will be today’s South Korea writ large, as in Germany, is as plain as day. What else could it be?

Aidan Foster-Carter
Leeds University Korea Project

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