In Cairo, I attended a packed symposium on South Korea hosted by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. This symposium also hosted a distinguished panel of speakers from South Korea from all walks of life, including the media, business, nuclear energy, education, politics, and technology sectors as well as the diplomatic corp.
The goal of the symposium was to increase interaction and communication between the Arab World and the South Korean Asian Tiger. The symposium aimed to promote the South Korean model across the Arab World, as well as review this model which stunned the world, transforming South Korea into an industrial and economic powerhouse on the international level in just a few short decades.
The South Koreans spoke well and made recommendations as did the Arabs. It was fantastic to listen to the words of Dr. Jaber Awad, an Egyptian researcher in Asian Studies with a special interest in South Korea. Professor Awad is the head of the Asian Studies Department at Cairo University, and he is responsible for a number of books and studies both written and translated by Egyptian researchers on South Korea.
A group of enthusiastic Egyptian students studying Korean at Egypt’s Ain Shams University also attended the symposium, and were warmly received by the Korean delegation as being part of the new generation of Egyptians studying and specializing in the language and culture of South Korea.
One of the best speeches was given by Professor John J. Su or – as he told the Arab audience to address him – Professor Amir. He is a head of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Seoul, and he speaks Arabic fluently to the point that he even told a few Egyptian jokes to the audience. In his speech he said “I am bewildered by the Arabs, for whenever I ask any Arab why they can’t make any real economic progress or development despite the ready availability of the tools needed to achieve this, many of them say – and this is an answer that I have continually heard – that our enemies do not want us to progress, and that the Arabs have many enemies.”
Dr. Amir’s speech was honest and straight-forward and tinged with gentle reproof and sincere advice.
By the end of the day I was truly hoping that any of the attendees or researchers would answer the question put forward by the Korean Orientalist. This question caused me to do some hard thinking. For example, the dangerous war between North Korea and South Korea is nearly as old as the Arab-Israeli conflict. The State of Israel was established in 1948, whilst the Korean peninsula was divided in the immediate aftermath of World War II, just 2 years earlier in 1945. This resulted in the formation of the North Korean government and the South Korean government, with North Korea becoming part of the Communist camp, and South Korea allying itself with the Capitalists. The Korean War broke out in 1950, and new chapters of this war are still taking place intermittently. The last such action was North Korea firing rockets into South Korea last week, threatening to create “a sea of fire” against South Korea.
Despite the presence of this complex conflict, this didn’t affect the grand course of South Korea’s development and success. How did they manage to separate this conflict from the country’s development, and why have we failed in this task?
I know that every case has its own special circumstances, but this question must be answered!
The success of South Korea’s economic growth was also not contingent upon political development (i.e. democratic development) as was the case with regards to many other Asian models. This raises the following question: Which comes first? Does economic development and success bring about political development or does political development and public participation [in politics] give rise to economic growth?
The last thing about the Korean model is that it shows us that we are capable of achieving success and making significant development even whilst having enemies and protecting and preserving our cultural idiosyncrasies.
Achieving such development requires us to have nothing more than a vision, and the will and power to execute this…and this is something that is by no means impossible [to achieve].