South Korea is Asia's fourth largest economy and the world's 15th. Yet in the 70s, South Korea stood at the same level of poverty with Uganda. The country had been devastated by the Korean war that continued for three years from 1950 and became one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita income below $100.
The late president Park Chung Hee pushed forward the five-year economic development plan from 1962, which he renewed in 1967 for another five years. However, the underdevelopment in the rural areas remained unchanged.
Realizing that economic growth could not be achieved without rural development, the president proposed Saemaul Undong as one of the ways to allocate the accumulated wealth through industrialization to developing rural areas, something that turned around Korea.
Jai Chang Lee, the President of Korea Saemaul Undong Centre (SMU) was in the country for a public lecture at Makerere University. Simon Musasizi had a discussion with him on how Saemaul Undong changed Korea.
What is Saemaul Undong all about?
Saemaul Undong is a Korean community development model that started in the 1970s. It was initiated in order to develop the underdeveloped Korean rural sector and Korea as a whole.
During those times, most rural areas in developing countries including Asia were not able to escape the vicious cycle of poverty despite external aid and the government's continuous effort.
Korea was not an exception. Korea's GNP rose through the export-driven economic growth policy in the early 1970s, but rural areas remained unchanged. At least 80% of agricultural households were thatched- roof houses and only 20% had electricity.
As there were no village entry roads for cars, even cultivators could not enter the villages as well. Saemaul Undong was proposed by late president Park Jeong Hee as a special programme to reform the underdeveloped rural communities.
This is the movement for a better life for rural villagers. Saemaul Undong is a mentally reformative movement to make villagers aware of the spirit of diligence, self-help, and cooperation, and a mental reform was achieved through practice and action rather than words of theory.
In other words, Saemaul Undong is a movement that develops the 'can do' spirit and confidence by personally experiencing the results achieved through practising Saemaul Undong.
So, what was its approach?
Saemaul Undong started by supplying 335 sacks (40kg per sack) of free cement to 33,267 rural villages nationwide. At the time, farmers [had] fresh hope [knowing] that our national economy had been growing year by year.
A strong desire to overcome the vicious cycle of poverty through their own efforts started to grow in their minds in response to the government's support. Most Korean farmers had their own land acquired through farmland, and the illiteracy rate was near zero as most farmers had received basic education.
Furthermore, most Korean men had completed their military service through which they had learnt the spirit of cooperation and basic techniques. This social and economic background made it possible to vitalize Saemaul Undong quickly.
Did this approach instruct the villages on how to use this cement?
Government simply provided guidelines for villagers to select projects required in their respective villages. As a result, villagers held village meetings through which they elected Saemaul leaders, and decided which projects were to be implemented.
For example, kitchens, fences and sewerages were modernized in households, village entry roads were widened and paved, and public laundry facilities as well as public wells were constructed.
The second step was to build the basic infrastructure in villages and implement production and income-increasing projects. The main projects for improving infrastructure were construction of bridges, clearing village streams, pavement of farming roads, and development of irrigation facilities.
Meanwhile, livestock breeding, horticulture, non-agricultural business, cooperative productions, greenhouse farming and specialty crop farming such as herbs [are] examples of income- increasing projects implemented during those times.
And what happened next?
The Korean government evaluated the projects of all villages in 1972, one year after the inaction of Saemaul Undong, and named 16,600 villages (approximately half of villages) 'outstanding village'.
The outstanding villages were those that had successfully implemented projects and were provided an additional supply of 500 sacks of cement and one ton of steel.
The villages, not given additional government support were stimulated by the government priority support system for successful villages, and as a result, when all the villages were evaluated again after a year in 1973, 6,000 villages were found to have implemented Saemaul projects with their own resources without government support.
Against this backdrop, government classified villages into three levels; basic level, self-help level and self-reliant level. Different projects were implemented in accordance with the village level and the level of government support was differentiated.
What else did you do?
Professional education on construction and farming as well as mental training were conducted. As the next step, various projects for common profit were implemented based on the self-help and cooperative spirit accumulated through previous projects.
Public funds were raised through the Saemaul credit union, cooperative project committees, village stores, and selling food during special events. In addition, public village facilities such as libraries, barber shops, baby care centres, public storages, rice mills, workshops, and public farming machines were provided.
The next step was the expansion of Saemaul Undong from rural areas to urban areas. Urban Saemaul Undong was implemented in the cities by promoting public order, kindness and cleanliness.
Energy saving, promotion of frugal lifestyles, and improvement of product quality as well as productivity was promoted through quality control campaigns in corporations and factories.
Nowdays, Saemaul Undong is expanding as a new national movement that can adjust to changes in our society under the name of Green Korea, Smart Korea, Happy Korea and Global Korea movement.
What prompted your success, where many countries have failed?
There are various reasons, but the most important is that a rural development movement cannot succeed without mental reform based on its own cultures, traditions and national spirit. Korea's Saemaul Undong was implemented based on the Saemaul spirits of diligence, self-help and cooperation.
There is a western proverb that says "the early bird gets the worm". The proverb emphasizes the importance of diligence. In addition, there is a western proverb that points out the importance of self-help, such as "heavens help those who help themselves."
For the meaning of cooperation, there is another proverb: "Two heads are better than one." There was a traditional cooperative agricultural group named "Durae" in Korean rural villages and traditional culture of Koreans called "Hyangyak", a common rule of life set and followed within the agricultural communities.
The traditional heritages of Korea became the basis of the Saemaul spirit, and the people's strong yearning to overcome poverty ignited the Saemaul spirit of diligence, self-help and cooperation.
What were some of the hiccups of these project?
Even with the great progress made through Saemaul Undong, trials and errors could not be avoided. First, villagers faced technical barriers in the implementation process. For example, there were cases of large bridges constructed by villagers breaking down after a while due to villagers' lack of technical skills.
Second, villagers felt burdened by some projects that they were not capable of implementing. These projects were pushed forward due to too much emphasis on competition.
Third, there was a tendency that some projects aimed at only visible results. Fourth, some pointed out that the rapid change of our society through Saemaul Undong brought about confusion in our traditional culture and values.