The Impossible Country

Alex Lacson
Commentary, Philippine Daily Inquirer
May 5, 2014

This is the title of a 2012 book written by Daniel Tudor. And it refers to South Korea, considered as “the poorest, most impossible country on the planet” in the 1950s.

From 1910 – 1945, Korea was occupied and ruled with extreme cruelty by the Japanese. More than 200,000 women were used as sex slaves. Men were used for forced labor. The Koreans were required to take Japanese names, speak Japanese language, and worship at Japanese Shinto shrines.

When World War II ended in 1945, Korea was divided into two, the South which was influenced and controlled by the America, and the North which was controlled by the Soviet Union.

But in 1950, the Korean War erupted when North Korea invaded South Korea.

When the Korean War ended in 1953, the country’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, buildings – was almost completely destroyed. A third of the population were homeless, as many houses were also destroyed. Many orphaned children wandered in the streets, looking for food. Approximately 95% of its people lived in poverty.  The government was utterly dependent from foreign aid, principally from the US. The country’s GDP per capita was below $100. Only 5% of its people finished high school, while less than 1% finished college. Around 3 million Koreans, or 10% of its population, died during the war. To make things worse, the country had virtually no natural resources to speak of. And only 21% of the country’s land is arable and fit to grow crops on. On top of all these, the first President of the country, Syngman Rhee, was corrupt, dictatorial and didn’t care much for the welfare of the people.

It was against this dark context that South Korea began as a country. The nation was literally born in the ruins of war and extreme poverty.

But merely 50 years later, South Korea became one of Asia’s and the world’s economic miracles. Today the country is an economic powerhouse as well as a stable democracy.

How did South Korea do it?

Author Daniel Tudor, an English who studied in Oxford University, has very interesting observations.

South Korea’s journey to success and prosperity began with Park Chung Hee, who was installed president of the country in 1961 after a coup d’etat that followed the “April Revolution” that forced the corrupt former president Rhee to flee to Hawaii.

One crucial thing that President Park pursued at the start, was to build his people’s spirit, the Korean spirit. He exhorted his people to make their country number one in Asia. His government printed posters challenging the Koreans to “Beat Japan”, their former colonizers, through industrialization. Some government posters shouted “We can do it!”. Even among the Christians, the most popular slogan was “A poor Christian is not a good Christian”. The parents and school teachers drilled into the minds of the youth that they were on a historic mission to revive the country.

This government campaign was very successful. The Koreans began to believe in themselves as the Korean spirit soared. Park believed that, in building a person or people, the spirit is more important than the flesh, the mind more important than the body. As a result of that campaign, the spirit of patriotism is still very high among Koreans today.

Another crucial thing that President Park did was to discipline the political leaders and business oligarchs. Park believed that these 2 groups were stumbling blocks to the country’s progress. Thus, Park charged and jailed many corrupt political leaders. He rounded up corrupt businessmen and tax evaders, and subjected them to public humiliations. Some were forced to march in the streets carrying placards “I am a corrupt swine”. Even Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul was jailed for corruption and tax evasion. Soon the oligarchs and businessmen cooperated with Park and participated in his economic development plan for the country. With the government direction and support, the chaebols (or big business conglomerates) helped fast track the country’s industrialization.  

The third crucial thing that President Park did was to provide a clear vision or economic direction for the country. He set the vision to make South Korea as Asia’s leader in shipbuilding, a vision that was attained a few years after his death in 1979. He set the vision to make South Korea the most industrialized country in Asia, and exhorted the chaebols to go into manufacturing of cars, electronic goods, household appliances, office equipment, fertilizer, among others, which they also achieved. Park also set a clear policy for import substitution. Once a company began producing a certain product, the government would block importation of competing goods from abroad. Many Korean companies benefitted from this protectionist policy.

The fourth crucial thing that Park did was to champion the “Saemaul Undong (New Village) Movement”, a rural development program. The government provided farming education, training and technological support to farmers in every farm village. But it also asked the people to be self-reliant, instead of depending on the government. The campaign spread like wildfire.  People became entrepreneurial and self-reliant. It changed the attitudes and culture of people in the rural areas. The Saemaul Undong Movement became the “cultural revolution” that built the country’s agricultural sector. Today, South Korea’s agriculture is one of the most successful in Asia.

When Park died in 1979, his country learned that he had only one property, an old apartment that he bought before he became president in 1961. He did not enrich himself in power. This is another great thing that Park did for his people.

Today, South Korea is Asia’s 4th largest economy and the world’s 15th. It is the world’s 16th largest donor to developing nations. Its people are highest paid employees in Asia. Poverty is less than 2% of its population.

Is there hope for our Philippines? You bet.

I am a great believer of the Filipino and our potential as a people!


Alex Lacson is author of the book “12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do To Help Our Country”. His email –

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