Korea’s Path from Poverty to Philanthropy

Kongdan Oh
Kongdan Oh Former Brookings Expert, Asian Specialist - Institute for Defense Analysis

June 14, 2010

On a beautiful May day in 2009, President Lee Myung-bak held an impressive ceremony at Cheong Wa Dae to inaugurate World Friends Korea, the country’s version of the Peace Corps.

The president and first lady were surrounded by a group of smiling young volunteers who were preparing to travel abroad to build a better global village.

This was quite a change from the early days of the country when Koreans depended on foreign aid to help them recover from the Korean War.

The early struggle

I remember what it was like growing up in Korea in the 1950s and 1960s. Per capita income was less than $100 – about what it is today in the poorest south Asian and African countries. The Korean War of 1950-1953 devastated the country, killing and injuring millions of people and scaring those who survived. In the early days of the war North Korean soldiers poured across the border and swept through most of South Korea, and in the aftermath of the war the economy was ruined and millions of families were separated and relocated. Our family, which had come down from the North before the war, fled to Busan at the southern tip of the peninsula to escape retribution from the North Koreans.

Food was sometimes scarce in the 1950s. In the springtime, after the autumn harvest had been eaten and before new crops could be gathered, poor people would scour the hills for edible herbs and plants – just as they do in North Korea today. Schoolrooms lacked desks and chairs and had little heat in the winter.

Many school children depended on foreign food donations like powdered milk for their lunch.

Tall and healthy American soldiers, staying on to deter the North Koreans, both attracted and frightened curious Korean children, who gratefully accepted presents of candy and chewing gum, foods that were totally foreign to their taste. No one could be sure that the North Koreans would not attack again.

During the 1950s, Korea’s economy slowly began to recover, but there wasn’t much to work with. Foreign aid and assistance came in from the International Development Association, the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and bilateral agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development and the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund of Japan. In the 1960s, South Korea under President Park Chung-hee launched economic and social development plans, and soon the economy began to grow, although the lives of ordinary people were hardly affected until the 1970s. By the time of Park’s death in 1979, income was over $1,500. Life was still difficult, but it was definitely getting better.

In his 1961 inaugural speech, President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans with the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” That same year, Kennedy launched the Peace Corps, based on an idea he had proposed as a senator, and in 1966 the first Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Korean cities and villages as teachers and as representatives of American society. Many Koreans did not know what to make of these young volunteers who had left their comfortable life in the United States to live among the poor Korean people. Some Koreans even suspected they might be American spies – why else would wealthy foreigners come to live in poor Korea- By 1981, when the Peace Corps had completed its work in Korea, almost 2,000 volunteers had lived and worked with their Korean hosts, convincing them that they were indeed there to help. The Peace Corps also spread values that are important to American society, such as the importance of individual human rights, democracy, and transparent governance – and the virtue of volunteering. The Americans were in turn influenced by their Korean hosts, and many Peace Corps volunteers later became diplomats, professors, and researchers who devoted their lives to studying Korea or working there. The incumbent American ambassador to Korea, Kathleen Stephens, was one of those volunteers.

Success finally achieved

The Korean economic miracle that was achieved under President Park’s leadership in the 1960s and 1970s is a story of dazzling national transformation from poverty to wealth.

The capstone of this achievement was the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where Koreans displayed their ability to host successfully a world-class event.

The traffic was calm thanks to the willingness of Seoul citizens to restrict their driving. Streets were cleaned and flowering plants decorated the fronts of homes and businesses. Even the roughest of bustling Seoul citizens put smiles on their faces to welcome their foreign visitors. As important as what visitors could see was the transformation that took place in the hearts and minds of the Korean people, who found in themselves a “we can do it” spirit.

This inward and outward transformation of Korean society was the first big step toward full participation in the international community.

Yet, until the end of the 1990s, Koreans still felt vulnerable and weak. Economic success brought them better jobs, salaries, and living conditions, but one could sense an endless desire to get more and more, perhaps a legacy of the many years of struggle and deprivation that Koreans had experienced. A kind of “me first” syndrome characterized much of Korean society, showing itself in pushing and shoving and the frequent resort to corruption to get ahead. Traditional values such as sharing with the community’s less fortunate seemed to have been eclipsed. Hence, the phenomenon of Seoul divided by the Han River, with the “South Han River” side becoming a new center of finance and economic power as many wealthy families moved to high-rise condos, while the north side was left out of the new development.

Korea’s new-found wealth also made it possible for Koreans to travel abroad, something that they previously had been prevented from doing both by lack of funds and by government restrictions. Unfortunately, some of these Korean travelers, having little experience with foreign cultures, took the worst of their everyday behaviors with them. It was not uncommon to see Korean travel groups sitting on the floors of airport terminals drinking soju and loudly playing the Korean card game called “hwatu.”

And then in the late 1990s Koreans reached another turning point in their national psyche and began to show a sensitivity and concern for others – in their society and in the world beyond. Perhaps this change can be attributed in part to how quickly and successfully Koreans overcame the financial crisis that swept through Asia in 1997. Today, Korean tourists of all ages, smartly dressed and sophisticated, are found in popular tourist spots around the world. Korean popular culture is also spreading throughout the world. The famous “hallyu” (Korean wave) of music, television shows, and films has swept through Asia, and Korean dishes such as kimchi are widely appreciated all over the world.

Time to help others

Today, Korea’s nominal per capita GNP is approximately $20,000, and Korea has become the world’s 14th largest economy. The Republic of Korea became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1996 and joined its Development Assistance Committee in November, 2009.

Korea, once an international aid recipient, has now become an aid donor. Korea was the first case since OECD’s birth in 1961 that an OECD member transformed its status from recipient to donor. It will greatly contribute to enhancing Korea’s prestige around the Seoul G-20 meeting of the major economies, scheduled for November in 2010. Korea’s industries are known throughout the world by their manufacturing and construction products. The time has come for Korea to take its place in the world. In 1991, the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) was established to administer Korea’s aid to other countries. More controversially, Korea has also been participating in security and reconstruction efforts in the some of the world’s hotspots, such as Afghanistan, not forgetting that it was once a hot spot itself.

And now there is the launch of World Friends Korea, an umbrella or “brand” covering numerous Korean volunteer programs already in operation.

On the government side, these programs include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ KOICA Volunteers, the Ministry of Public Administration’s Internet Volunteers, and the Ministry of Education’s University Volunteers and Techno Peace Corps. By the end of the year, some 3,000 Korean volunteers, young and old, will be working with foreign governments, schools, and other non-profit organizations in some 40 countries, making this the second largest such program after the U.S. Peace Corps. In the years ahead, the program is expected to expand to more than 10,000 volunteers.

By coordinating its volunteer efforts within government agencies and with Korean NGO’s and private companies’ volunteer programs, World Friends aims to strengthen the brand name of the country (which some people still confuse with its troublesome neighbor, North Korea), as well as enhance volunteer training, overseas support, and services for returning volunteers.

Each of the volunteer programs has its own particular field of expertise and its own objectives. For example, the Korea Internet Volunteers, founded in 2001, provide information and communication training to foreign ICT experts and students in some 40 countries, while the Techno Peace Corps, established in 2006, sends volunteers on one-year assignments to teach foreign students about technology transfer.

Under the unified coordination of World Friends, the common goals of all these programs will be to improve the quality of life for people in the host nations, strengthen friendship and mutual understanding with the people of Korea, and help the volunteers fulfill their own potential. Like members of the American Peace Corps and similar volunteer organizations in other countries, Korean volunteers often discover their overseas experience has become a defining part of their life and a path to future success in their careers back home.

What is KOICA?

The Korean International Cooperation Agency was established in 1991 as a government agency to administer aid grants to developing countries. KOICA was modeled on JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), which had been operating since 1974 to administer Japan’s substantial foreign aid program. KOICA’s three main goals are to assist developing countries in achieving sustainable social and economic development, to help alleviate poverty, and to promote humanitarian assistance and human security.

KOICA’s focus areas are education, health, governance, rural development, information and communication technology, industry and energy, environmental protection, and gender equality.

KOICA is an important institution in the Korean government’s Overseas Development Aid (ODA) framework, which administers three types of aid: bilateral grants, bilateral loans, and multilateral assistance. KOICA is responsible for implementing the aid programs and promote international cooperation.

Specific KOICA tasks include recruiting foreign trainees, dispatching Korean experts and volunteers, conducting development studies, providing emergency and disaster relief, and supporting aid programs with capital, facilities, and supplies. In addition, KOICA promotes cooperation with multilateral organizations, engages in research and policy planning, and supports the implementation of overseas Korean government projects.

KOICA reaches every corner of the globe, with an emphasis on countries in South Asia and Africa. An important goal is to integrate Korea’s own development experience and comparative advantage with current development cooperation projects. To leverage its resources, KOICA enlists the cooperation of government and civil organizations and businesses in the host countries.

Today, KOICA staff members are in the vanguard of Koreans who are demonstrating the country’s willingness and readiness to share the wealth and knowledge they have gained through years of hard work. This volunteer work is more impressive given Korea’s tumultuous history and past experiences as an underdeveloped nation, and holds out hope that many of the countries now benefiting from KOICA’s work will one day themselves be able to extend a helping hand to less fortunate countries.

Korea’s overseas medical aid

Korea today benefits from a modern health-care system, ranking above the United States in life expectancy. It was not always so. In the 1950s, the life expectancy for Koreans was little more than 50 years. One could almost say that in those days modern medical treatment was a luxury. One of the major policy objectives of KOICA is to improve healthcare and medical knowledge in poverty- stricken countries. In this endeavor, KOICA joins the ranks of Korean NGOs whose expertise in the fields of public health and medicine have contributed substantially to improving global health. KOICA and NGOs are experienced in providing urgent medical assistance in disaster-hit areas, as well as establishing long-term public health programs.

For example, after the tsunami devastated Indonesia’s Aceh province in 2004, Korea joined international disaster relief teams to provide medical personnel and medicine.

The same was true after the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. In 2007 KOICA donated funds to build a Public Health Center for mothers and children in Ecuador, a rehabilitation center in Columbia, and a medical center in Cambodia. In Cambodia, KOICA also provided medicine for the center, training courses for the junior doctors, and management skills to run the center. In 2008 the Korean government provided new blood banks for the Irbed, Mafraq, and Ajlun areas of Jordan. In short, Korean doctors, nurses, and public health workers participate with KOICA and other agencies of the Korean government to alleviate suffering around the world and address the same kind of shortages in medicine and public health that Korea once faced.