BUSAN, South Korea – With the sudden passing of Kim Jong-il, the foreseeable future of news about Korea will be dominated by speculation about North Korea’s instability, possible collapse, and of course reunification. However, it is important to not get caught up into ideas of crisis about such a rogue state and keep in mind that Europe, the United States, and South Korea have undergone their fair share of destabilizing events over the past year.
Surely with all the hype about the Dear Leader one could easily lose Park Tae-joon‘s death on December 14th in the shuffle. Mr. Park was a former South Korean general who established POSCO â one of the world’s largest steel manufacturers. Even more interesting, General Tae-joon Park was one of the last prominent figures involved in President Park Chung-hee’s coup d’état of 1961 and the subsequent industrial push that transformed Korea from a poverty-stricken country to one of the world’s wealthiest nation.
Looking back to this period is informative about how the global system of economics and power actually works. Now, South Korea is a poster-child of the West’s development success. However, it wasn’t always that way.
One important piece of irony is that General Park’s most formidable obstacle was also the United States government who turned down his request for assistance in building Korea’s first steel plant. In 1966, American and World Bank economists concluded that South Korea could not successfully build, operate, or support an integrated steel mill and refused to cooperate in financing it.
Ignoring the failure to win over the west’s financiers, President Park Chung-hee maneuvered around the American opposition by negotiating a reparation package, to normalize relations with Japan, which included money and technology necessary for the steel plant. Indeed, POSCO would become the foundation of Korea’s heavy industry and its export successes. By 1998, POSCO was ranked number one internationally producing 25.6 million metric tons.
Though many Korean politicians are proud of this story and hold such people like Park Tae-joon as national heroes, they have actually been implementing policies over the past two decades that have undermined such efforts.
As early as the 1980s, US officials and the IMF were looking to privatize South Korea’s economy and break the government’s regulations on foreign capital. And it was with the economic crisis of 1996 that the IMF and US business interests got its chance. As part of the IMF bailout package of 1997, the Korean government began a vast privatization scheme that included POSCO. By 2000, POSCO was fully privatized, as more than 50% of the firm went into the hands of foreign investors.
In the place of the rightfully maligned development dictatorship of Park Chung-hee has arisen a government and business elite that has followed neo-liberal path of the IMF and its holy grail of free markets. And in doing so economic disparity in South Korean has risen along with other indicators of political instability. For example, recently the ruling Grand National Party has been riven with dissension as representatives Jeong Tae-keun and Kim Song-sik suddenly deserted the party. The two representatives were disillusioned by the inability of the party to pass reforms to win back the public’s confidence ahead of two crucial elections next year. The duo and other reformist legislators claim that the party should disband and create a new political party, possibly without Lee Myung-bak.
Perhaps, the death of Kim Jong-il will save the Grand National Party. Now powerful leaders in the US, Europe, and South can mobilize fears about North Korea and dissuade us to think more seriously about the economic problems that have shaken the western world and those who have followed its path.
Dr. George Baca is an associate professor of Anthropology at Dong-A University and a research scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He is an associate editor of Nationalism’s Bloody Terrain (Berghahn Books) and the author of Conjuring Crisis: Racism and Civil Rights in a Southern Military Town. You can check out his blog, and older postings here.