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The Wages of the Olympics, 1988 Edition

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I spent 1996-97 in South Korea teaching English in the public schools. It was a mind-blowing experience in any number of ways. But one thing was clear when I was there, which is that the poor were treated like garbage. There were still old-style slums when I was there. They were disappearing fast in the rapidly modernizing nation, but there were still sort of low-slung somewhat makeshift buildings where people were essentially growing rice in their back fields were right next to 12 story high-rises. I went from school to school, from the best in the province to very poor schools. And the poor basically were treated like garbage. So I wasn’t surprised to find out that the awful and American-supported Park Chung-Hee ordered the streets cleaned of the undesirable.

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  • LeeEsq

    Park Chung-Hee was assassinated in 1979. I think that was before South Korea won the Olympic bid for 1988. This might be one abuse that he isn’t liable for.

    • DrDick

      According to the article in the link, he issued the decree in 1975, which remained in effect in 1988.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        He’s still only tangentially related to the Olympics. There were 9 more years of (to various degrees) dictatorship in South Korea. It’s just that dropping his name makes for recognition amongst readers.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          Almost all of those nine years except the very last part were dominated by Chun Doo-Hwan.

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            Park wasn’t even involved in the Gwangju Massacre

            • J. Otto Pohl

              True, he was dead.

  • monad

    Does anyone know of some articles online in English discussing poverty today in South Korea? I haven’t been able to find much.

    • monad

      In particular, I’m interested in what issues face people living outside of urban centers — suburbs, smaller cities/towns, and rural areas.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    Park Chung Hee was a huge improvement over Sygman Rhee who was both an authoritarian dictator like Park but did nothing to develop the economy and industrialize the country. Because he had served in the Japanese military Park unlike Rhee could not rely solely upon Korean nationalism with its hatred of everything Japanese and anti-communism. He needed something to replace the anti-Japanese nationalism. That something was economic development and industrialization. While the industrial development of South Korea was capitalist as opposed to the socialist inustrialization of the North it involved a huge amount of state intervention and differed radically from the “free market” capitalism advocated by Hayek and other economists. South Korea’s directed capitalist development under Park has been one of the more successful examples of overcoming the severe problems of underdevelopment that afflict most post-colonial societies. So given that most post-colonial societies ended up with the Rhee rather than Park model of having both an authoritarian political regime and no economic development Park’s legacy is actually mixed and not universally horrible.

    • DrDick

      So he only screwed the poor, which makes him a good guy in your world?

      • witlesschum

        So given that most post-colonial societies ended up with the Rhee rather than Park model of having both an authoritarian political regime and no economic development Park’s legacy is actually mixed and not universally horrible.

        I think Otto’s making sense on this one (though I don’t know enough about South Korea to know if he’s correct) and “not universally horrible” seems measured-enough.

        • LeeEsq

          Same here. The entire issue depends on whether or not you think you can develop an economy without going through a harsh phase. You certainly can have a full or at least mainly democratic system with rule of law and develop the economy. For all their faults, that describes the United States, the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand, Australia, and the Nordic countries plus a few others. What seems harder is developing the economy in a non-exploitative way. The poor were screwed in the above systems when they were building their economy but arguably less so than in other countries.

          • DrDick

            The entire issue depends on whether or not you think you can develop an economy without going through a harsh phase.

            However, this represents a rather glaring double standard on JOtto’s part (and some others’ as well), who damns Stalin for the same things.

            • J. Otto Pohl

              Park and Stalin are hadly comparable. Park was not the most brutal Korean leader by any means. The massacres before, during, and after the Korean War under Rhee were far worse. An argument could be made that the repression of students under Park’s successor under Chun were also considerably more brutal. This is even before comparing him to the three generations of Kims. On the other hand there is no argument that Stalin was not just authoritarian like Park but used massive unnecessary terror that claimed millions of lives and permanently ruined tens of millions more. This distinguishes Stalin not just from Park but from other Soviet leaders like Lenin, Khurshchev, and Brezhnev as well. So no it isn’t the same thing. There were not hundreds of thousands of people shot, millions dead in labor camps, and whole ethnic groups deported to wastelands to die in droves under Park. The only modern leaders really comparable to Stalin are Hitler, Mao, and on a smaller scale Pol Pot.

            • Dilan Esper

              Isn’t there a matter of degree here?

              I mean, Stalin is right up on the list of the biggest murderers of all time (something like 20 million people in the purges, plus the gulags and various other forms of state sponsored terror), right?

              I’m not in love with any of these sorts of arguments, but it certainly seems to me that you can say that a certain level of repression is tolerable if it comes alongside economic development, but Stalin-level repression is never justified.

              • J. Otto Pohl

                Yes, massive terror goes from being quantitative to qualitative at some point. The current figures show about 800,000 executions, almost 2 million Soviet citizens dying in corrective labor camps, colonies, and prisons, and 1.1 million due to internal deportation as special settlers. So almost four million people before you even get into the Holodomor (Ukrainian Famine), the Kazakh disaster, deaths of Axis POWs and civilian internees in GUPVI camps and other causes. It should also be added that Korea is one of the few very ethnically homogenous places in the world. In contrast the USSR was one of the most ethnoracially diverse. So the massive internal deportations of peoples like the Crimean Tatars and Chechens for having the wrong ancestry has no possible comparison in Korea. Indeed the first national group subject to almost total forced resettlement in the USSR were some 172,000 ethnic Koreans in the Soviet Far East deported by Stalin to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Soviet racism under Stalin against these groups was everybit as bad as the worst racism in the US or South Africa.

            • LeeEsq

              Besides the scale of difference that Otto and Dilan mentioned, there is that matter that Park’s economic modernization ended up making South Korea one of the wealthiest countries in the world in the present. Besides the Baltic countries, most of the former Soviet countries are not doing that well. Park’s economics also improved that material lot of millions of Koreans in Park’s lifetime and provided them with creature comforts like televisions, beer, and popular culture at least. That’s much more than could be said for Stalinism with it’s emphasis on heavy industry and collectivized agriculture at the expense of consumer goods and light industry.

              • DrDick

                The cold war and the consequent alignment of resources made a huge difference in the outcomes. Korea received massive subsidies from the US.

                • Brett

                  You’re grasping at straws to try and avoid admitting that South Korea had a superior economic system. North Korea had help from the Soviet Union as well, and I notice that South Korea didn’t lose millions of its citizens to starvation when the Cold War ended and the subsidies stopped.

      • rea

        Only screwing the poor is mildly preferable to screwing everyone.

      • Brett

        The poor didn’t benefit from South Korea’s industrialization and modernization?

        I think Otto’s right here. Park was corrupt as hell and did a lot of shitty things, but in the scheme of things he at least put South Korea on a solid path towards first world status economically.

        As for Stalin, well, he industrialized the country – but he also put in place the seeds of what ultimately caused its economic breakdown. Nor did Stalinist Russia ever catch up with the West economically.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          Yes, to all three. Park was authoritarian and had a bad human rights record. He also laid the foundations for Korea’s current prosperity and reduction of poverty from what existed in the 1950s and 1960s. Stalin industrialized the USSR. However, the economic model proved unsustainable and the only thing that prevented negative GDP growth in the 1970s rather than 1980s in the USSR were high oil prices. The USSR never managed to have a higher standard of living than the US. While South Korea overtook North Korea economically in the early 1970s under Park.

  • Jhoosier

    Oh man, I really wish I knew more about South Korea and all the shit that goes on there. My only visit was in the summer of 2004. We arrived days after a Korean truck driver had been killed in Iraq, and there was a massive anti-war/anti-American demonstration going on. So my introduction to the country was being picked up by a former student, driving into Seoul, seeing a mass of riot police crouched behind a hedge, then driving head-on into the protest (I and my American friend ducked our heads down to keep out of sight).

    To this day, I’m flabbergasted at how little I know about the country, and how awful the Korean government my country supported was. Despite all this, I’ve never been criticized for it by any Korean person I’ve ever met.

    I’ve had Germans have a go at me for being an American who single-handedly failed to prosecute GWB for war crimes, old Japanese men distraught from Hiroshima, Moroccans laughing at the Clinton impeachment, and the British go on about our ‘mispellings’ and odd usage of a fork, but no Korean has ever uttered one critical word about the US in my presence, despite US support of some pretty awful people there.

    • LeeEsq

      Most South Koreans are pretty hardcore anti-Communist or at least anti-Kim dynasty. Many of them also have a different interpretation than a standard Western liberal does. They believe, with good reason, that without United States support than all of Korea would look like North Korea does in the present. This isn’t something they necessarily think is a good idea. They might not have like the different military regimes and shame republics but leftism never was strong in South Korean politics and they are wealthy in the present compared to the North so at least a plurality see the past lack of democracy as necessary part of remaining free of the North and wealth.

      • Brett

        I think that describes older Koreans more than the younger generation. From what I’ve read, they’re not really afraid of North Korea and are much more supportive of stuff like the “Sunshine Policy” from the early 2000s.

        • LeeEsq

          This might be true but it is the older Koreans who determine why the United States is popular in Korea. They had good reason from their point of view to support the United States. The Kim regime is still a giant mess and there isn’t any reason to believe why having them in control of the entire Korean peninsula would make things better.

        • Jean-Michel

          Younger South Koreans are actually closer to the oldest generation in their attitudes towards the North. The gaps between age cohorts aren’t huge, but have been fairly consistent over the last five or so years, and similar attitudes are reflected in more up-to-the-minute types of polling; for example, a Gallup poll after the last nuclear test found that twentysomethings were more about 20% more likely to view the test as “threatening” than those in the thirties, and only slightly less likely to do so than those in their fifties and sixties. In other words it looks as if younger South Koreans are more aligned with the older generation on matters related to the north, while the outliers are those in their 30s and 40s—which is not really surprising, since those are the people who came of age during the “unification fever” of the late ’90s-early 2000s, when it seemed like the whole country was in the grip of a sentimental ethnonationalism in which all of North Korea’s problems were secondary to the fact that they were Koreans “just like us.” This is much debated at the moment, but a plausible explanation for the divergence of the twentysomething cohort is that they identify more with the ROK specifically and take a less ethnonationalist, pan-Korean view (this would also go some way to explaining why the twentysomething group has far more favorable attitudes towards Japan than any other).

          • Brett

            I didn’t know that. Interesting stuff, and thank you.

          • Jhoosier

            That’s interesting to know. Thanks for the information.

  • Jean-Michel

    The great documentarian Kim Dong-won made a short film (okay, a video) about this at the time; unfortunately the DVD seems to be no longer available (it was released in this fantastic and English-friendly collection of nearly all of his works), and this is all I can find online of the English version.

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