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Haunting history of South Korea brings results of different leadership into focus

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Zukiswa Pikoli is Daily Maverick's Managing Editor for Gauteng news and Maverick Citizen where she was previously a journalist and founding member of the civil society focused platform. Prior to this she worked in civil society as a communications and advocacy officer and has also worked in the publishing industry as an online editor.

Here are my three significant reference points following a visit to South Korea, not least the reliance on human capital to rebuild and reach an advanced development stage.

A few weeks ago I was part of a media delegation visiting Seoul in South Korea. This was as part of the build-up to the Korea-Africa Summit on 4 and 5 June, which hopes to attract various leaders and dignitaries from the African continent to strengthen foreign, economic, cultural and development relations.

We visited many significant sites of colonial, cultural and developmental history as we were carefully walked through places that emphasise that South Korea should be seen as a country with a comparable history and efforts towards democracy.

Before I visited the country, I only had three significant points of reference, the first of which is the horror of Japan colonising Korea for 35 years, resulting in the denial of Koreans’ rights and freedoms, including freedom of the press.

This, of course, created a fertile ground for resistance and a fight for independence from imperial rule. It sparked a four-year war to wrestle back the soul of Korea, resulting in ravaging famine, millions of deaths and a general, pervasive brokenness.

An unintended consequence of the war was the splitting of the peninsula into communist North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, and democratic South Korea, backed by the US.

This brings into focus my second significant reference point: North Korea and Kim Jong-un. He has, for some reason, attained pop cult status as an eccentric and hilarious dictator – if such a thing could exist. I won’t go on about Kim too much, but he is most famous for ruling his country with an iron fist and ensuring that it is insulated from the rest of the world.

One of the most haunting sites we visited was the Korean Demilitarised Zone, which demarcates the North from the South. It features many painful sites, with stories of families ripped apart and forced to live without their loved ones, as well as evocative monuments, plaques and ribbons.

A particular story that I found interesting plays a central role in how South Korea managed to build itself up to where it is today: the tale of Hyundai Motor Company’s origins. Its founder, Chung Ju-yung, left North Korea to seek a better life and stole a single cow to start his life in South Korea.

After he made his fortune, his guilty conscience led him to send 1,001 cows back to North Korea – 1,000 as a symbol of friendship and one to replace the cow he had stolen. It’s the stuff of parables, I tell you, but also symbolic of a culture that models itself on respect and morality.

What stands out among all the places we visited and the experiences I had is the reliance on human capital to rebuild and reach an advanced development stage, particularly technologically, in just 70 years.

Which brings me to my third reference point: the extraordinary statesman Ban Ki-moon, former South Korean foreign minister and UN secretary-general. His lasting legacy – the pursuit of peace and sustainable development goals for the world – is the reason the country has always been so compelling for me. They are the kind of leadership goals with which South Africa, particularly at this politically tumultuous time, could stand to have a meaningful exchange. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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  • Robert de Vos says:

    Yip .. after a civil war in the early 1950’s, with millions of people displaced, around 3 million fatalities and a larger proportion of civilian deaths than World War II or the Vietnam War, SK is now a powerhouse of technology and productivity being the world’s seventh-largest steelmaker and leading in car manufacturing, shipbuilding and electronics

    In 70 years after a ground-flattening war. Israel is a global leader in almost every technology and agriculture in just about the same time. But South Africa? With all our resources? Practically bankrupt.

    What went wrong?

  • Makumba Chipulu says:

    Hate how these articles are ever barely grounded in historical fact. The “democratic South Korea, backed by the US” is misleading at best and an outright lie at worst. Syngman Rhee, the ROK first president was many things but democratic was not one of them. “Democracy” as we understand it only took root their post 1987. Also, as regards to why the succeeded. I mean its the same reason West Germany and Japan did to be honest. Massive tones of American military and financial aid which saw it as a strategic bulwark against Soviet expansion in South East Asia and thus had a vested interest in its success hence the massive amounts of investment. This is materially different from South Africa’s post ’94 context

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