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Historical Context



South Korea, the poorer half of one of the poorest countries in the world, is trying to exist as a nation with too many people and too few resources. No one knows the answers to the country’s economic woes. - A.M. Rosenthal, 1961


In 1960, South Korea was one of the poorest countries on the planet. The annual GDP sat at just $79, and despite recieving massive amounts of aid from the USA, due to corruption and mismanagement the South was recovering significantly worse than North Korea.

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  • From 1948, Korea was under the rule of a corrupt, dictatorial civilian government
  • In the early 60s, as growth lagged behind North Korea and tensions were rising, a military coup overthrew the government and installed a brutal military regime led by Park Chung-Hee
    • South Korea lacked the rich natural resource deposits of the north
  • Through decades of crushed uprisings, horrific massacres and surpression of free speech, South Korea eventually became democratic in 1987.

Under Park Chung-Hee, Korea began engaging economic reforms that would eventually lead to the "Miracle on the Han". There were a few Major factors:

Economic reforms

Land Reform

In 1945, Korea was a somewhat feudal, agrarian peasant society dominated by the 'yangban' landholding aristocratic class. While the government in the 50s was conservative and had ties to the upper classes, worried about sweeping N. Korean land reform and a restless peasant population it passed sweeping land reforms. Limiting land holdings to 7.5 acres, the rest were distributed to peasants, who in turn had to pay back very generous debt. In 1944, 3% of SK owned 64% of farmland. In 1956, the top 6% owned only 18 percent. This had massive effects. Traditional peasants became small entrepreneurial farmers, and the landholding class instead directed their efforts into business, industry, and education.


Under the corrupt government of the 50s, many family businesses recieved special favors from the government allowing them to grow very powerful and dominate the economy. Under Park, rather than remove them as a symbol of a previous corrupt government, the government began investing heavily into them, moving from "import substitution to exported-oriented industrial development" (Seth). These large family conglomerates were often assigned industries to participate in by the government, and to this day remain world leaders in that field as a result


South Korea had to build its own economic advantages to survive. As such, the government started investing in acquiring technical knowledge. Many universities and research centers were founded (most famously KIST) or expanded, and access to a technical education was made much easier through establishment of vocational secondary schools and two-year technical colleges. The USA also provided valuable knowledge in areas such as ship-building, automobiles, and construction, as well as a wealthy trading partner to export to

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1. Those Left Behind | 2. Pressures and Quality of Life | 3. Chaebol Corruption




note: Talk about elderly, blue collar workers, and low-wage jobs. Mention corporate exploitation and lack of worker protectionsnotes: don't make them seem powerless, they still have power and agency to resist.

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Source: Korean Atlas


Seoul, and the area surrounding it is both driving the national economy and harming regional economies. Since so much of the nation's industry, jobs, and universities are concentrated in this area, it is both causing a housing crisis in and around Seoul, and leading to economic and population decline in the peripheral provinces, especially in the Southwest and Northeast. This map is from 2010, and since then the effect has gotten worse with Busan, Ulsan, and Daegu (all of which saw growth in 2010), having a shrinking population in 2022. Busan especially is the 2nd largest city in Korea, but neither it or its surrounding area is growing as of 2022 (Statistics Korea).

Under the land reform bills in the 50s, massive amounts of formerly aristocratic land were bought and given to the peasantry. Farmers had to 150 percent of the annual value of the land received over a ten-year period, but this was rather easy to pay off due to the high rate of inflation.Seth claims that this set the foundation for a prosperous society in the future, claiming that this allowed for stability in the countryside, while forcing the upper classes to break out of complacency and instead start ventures that would move the economy forward, such as the establishment of private schools, institutions, and entrepreneurial endeavors.

Land reform in Korea

While Seoul's population growth is close to the country average, we see immense growth in the Greater Seoul Metropolitan area. From 1949 to 2010, the population of Korea grew by 28.4 million to 48.4 million. Much of this growth was in Seoul, with the Greater Seoul Metropolitan area gaining approximately 19.7 million, or 98% of the country-wide growth. While this does not mean 19.7 of the 20 million born in that time were born in the Seoul area, it does indicate a gravitational pull towards the city, at the expense of the North-East and South-West of the country.In particular, Incheon, Cheongnam, and Gyeonggi made up 3 of the 4 highest growth provinces in Korea.


Science and Tech R&D in Korea

Korea has a unique relationship with S&T research among developed, democratic countries in that it is strongly assosciated with and driven by the government, and as such new developments have a decidedly nationalist tinge. This becomes an issue in situations like the Hwang Woo-seok affair, where falsified information and test results were not looked into rigorously as the supposed developments became a source of national pride. Furthermore, it gives the government high levels of control over where resources are allocated and what is researched.This relationship has its origins in the post-war era, with businesses and universities lacking the capacity for meaningful R&D, "the Korean government emerged as the primary actor with the resources and mobilization capacity to drive S&T initiatives" (Bak). S&T was instrumentalized by the authoritarian regime of Park Chung-Hee as a means of legitimizing political power and fostering national identity. This still holds true in many ways, and as such Korean S&T developments are a way for the ruling party to gain political points. This further incentivizes government roles in S&T. State involvement in S&T contributes to its sociotechnical imaginaries, which are collectively imagined forms of social life and order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and technological projects. Korean sociotechnical imaginaries are largely defined by nationalistic desires to become economically independent, and as such are deeply intertwined with narratives of national development and modernization.s

Rough First Steps

The first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, operated less with concrete goals and more with the idea of enriching himself and those loyal to him. His regime, despite assive amounts of aid from the USA, recovered from the war much slower than the North. This mishandling of the economy led to massive currency devaluation, and led to the military regime that would rule Korea for decades to come.

Although the military ended up taking power, there was widespread protest from Koreans of all walks of life---and especially students---against Rhee's government. Rhee resigned directly due to the April Revolution, a largely student-led event. Similar to the Iranian Revolution, where wide-spread student protests inadvertendly lead to a theocratic, authoritarian regime, while the April Revolution had its roots in the citizenry protesting for more rights and better management, the instability in the wake of Rhee's resignment led to the Military Junta taking power.

For reference, this is Seoul today, 60 years later. Even more mind-boggling, is that this area south of the river (known as Gangnam), was developed only starting in the early 70s

  • Samsung, which makes up 1/5th of S. Korean GDP alone
  • Hyundai
  • LG
  • KT

Chaebol include:


A compound word made from 채 (wealth) and 볼 (family), Chaebol are large family conglomerates that are intensely diversified, operating in everything from Life Insurance, to Ship-building, to electronics, to even military weaponry. They have been a driving force in the Korean economic miracle, but remain controversial outside Korea for the immense power they exert over the civilian government and are often linked with corruption scandals


Honam, which makes up most of the southwest quarter of the country, has seen the highest levels of population decline. This area was among the most resistant to the right-wing military dictatorship of the 60s, 70s and 80s, and notably is the location of the Gwangju Uprising and Massacre, where military personal murdered thousands of protesters. This is reflected in how Honam votes to this day, consistently voting left-wing in an overall conservative societyIn a report by the UN Refugee Agency, the author claims that regionalism among leadership and Honam's resistence to the military regime led to economic neglect and lack of investment compared to Yeongnam (Busan, Daegu) and Gyeonggi (Seoul, Gyeonggi-Si). This economy of this region is largely agricultural, and lacks much industry,


An outlier, the city with the highest growth in 2022 was Sejong City. Sejong City is a planned city, and represents a concious effort to alleviate the pull of Seoul on the rest of the country. It was built to gradually move the capital away from Seoul, and by extent inject growth and industry back into the center of the country which has been suffering from population loss. It already acts as the de-facto administrative capital, with the departments of Education, Environment, Labor, Agriculture, Culture and Trade all being located there. However, Sejong lacks vital infrastructure, like a subway system or train station, and the existing bus system is inefficient. This leads to the opposite situation of Seoul. The city itself is growing, while the surrounding provinces are not. This is because as opposed to Seoul, it is prohibitively difficult to commute, and as such the goal of injecting life back into the center of the country has largely not been acheived.