Development Roast

Saemaul Undong: South Korea’s mark on international development

South Korea's development over the past half-century has been one of the biggest successes in the world. Measured in terms of either economic wealth, or the Human Development Index (HDI) which considers factors such as education and life expectancy, South Korea's rise has been phenomenal. The country which is currently renowned for hi-tech companies such as Samsung 1, and for being the home of 'Gangnam Style 2', was, just 50 years ago, suffering from the aftermath of a bloody civil war and had a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of just US$64 3.

A brief summary of the South Korea's recent history sets the scene. Prior to World War II, Korea was ruled by Japanese imperialists. After the war, Japanese rule was replaced by the Soviet Union in the northern part of the country and the United States (U.S.) in the south. The northern rulers invaded the south in 1950, starting the three-year long Korean War which ended in the country being divided into North and South Korea. Kim Il-Sung took up the presidency of North Korea while South Korea came under the dictatorship of President Rhee Seung-Man. A military coup in 1961 led to General Park Chung-Hee taking the rule from President Rhee, and South Korea started the journey to rebuild itself. The results are astonishing: in 2011, the country's GNI per capita was over US$28,000, putting it in 15th place in the list of world economies 4, and it also ranked 15 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index 5 that year.

A key part of the country's development was 'Saemaul Undong' 6, which means 'New Village Movement'*. The movement was first implemented by General Park in 1970 and was characterized by its emphasis on community-driven development. According to its ideals, the improvement of people's lifestyles encompassed the whole community, not just individuals. Its goals were to develop communities where people enjoyed “both physical and spiritual wealth”; to achieve rural development compatible with the preservation of cultural traditions and the environment; and to achieve economic growth, equally distributed amongst all citizens. An important aspect of the movement was also its ability to adapt to the changing needs of Korea's society and economy, as the country developed. The movement had five main stages:

Stage 1 (1970-3):The central government started the program by providing building materials to villages in rural areas, free of charge. The villagers were free to use these materials as they wished. The priorities were to improve living conditions, for example by modernizing toilet and kitchen facilities, and to expand rural road networks. Other goals were to increase household income by improving agricultural techniques and to change people's attitudes by promoting the movement's philosophy of diligence, frugality, and cooperation.

Villagers building a bridge to improve their village's infrastructure as part of Saemaul Undong (the 'New Villages Movement'). Photo credit: Saemaul Undong Center.

Stage 2 (1974-6): The movement expanded to include corporations and factories to increase their productivity and encourage sound labor management. The priority now was to increase income by identifying economic opportunities other than farming. The next priority was to continue to change people's attitudes to make them aware of the value of the movement, through education and public relations activities. Projects to improve living conditions also continued, including the installation of basic water supply facilities and the refinement of housing structures.

Stage 3 (1977-9): The movement had by now achieved great success in rural areas: in 1976, the average income of an agricultural household had surpassed that of an urban household. Urban citizens, impressed by this progress, became more interested in Saemaul Undong. The movement began to expand the scope of its projects to include urban areas e.g. paving roads. Efforts were also made to create links between rural and urban areas to unify the two.

Stage 4 (1980-9): The assassination of General Park resulted in political and social chaos, but the movement survived. The government handed the movement's organization over to the private sector and the movement continued to implement projects such as developing parks. The GNP per capita more than tripled during this stage, reaching nearly US$5,000 in 1989.

Stage 5 (1990-8): Due to the downturn of South Korea's economy, the foreign exchange crisis in 1997, and the increase in social disorder, 1990-1998 proved a difficult period. The movement responded by trying to restore moral ethics in the community, by providing informal as well as formal educational events which promoted the movement's ideals and encouraged citizens to serve others rather than just themselves. Other priorities included the advancement of traditional culture and the promotion of direct trade between rural and urban citizens. In 1996 the country's GNP per capita surpassed the US$10,000 mark.

Successful though it was, not all Koreans were in favor of the movement: at the time, many considered it to be merely a scheme to strengthen General Park's dictatorial power (for a discussion, see, for example, the 1984 article by political economist Professor Mick Moore entitled 'Mobilization and Disillusion in Rural Korea: The Saemaul Movement in Retrospect 7'). And since the end of Stage 5, the movement has receded, partly because its goals of developing rural areas were achieved long ago. However, it still exists and receives government support. A 2010 article in The Korea Times 8 reported that nowadays Koreans' attitudes towards the movement are becoming more positive, helped largely by the interest shown by foreign countries. In 2002 the Philippines became the first country to implement its own variety of Saemaul Undong, and it was followed by more than a dozen other countries including Mongolia and Cambodia. In total, over 70 countries have expressed an interest in learning about the South Korean New Village Movement.

What makes Saemaul Undong especially appealing to developing countries is that the majority of the decision-making is left to the citizens themselves, enabling them to develop the facilities that their particular communities need. And the movement's activists from South Korea are helping ensure that the program is adapted to the needs of the specific country. For example, in the Philippines, they focus on three major projects: digging wells to provide villages with clean drinking water; building village centers for educational activities; and operating 'pig banks', which is a scheme where villagers are given pigs for free but pay 'interest' on them in the form of piglets to a 'bank' which increases the village's income.

When the Movement started, General Park said 9,
“Saemaul Undong embodies our efforts to improve and modernize our villages by ourselves in the spirit of self-help and independence. The government has launched the national campaign in the firm belief that it would turn every village in Korea into a prosperous and comfortable place to live in.”

It is safe to say that Saemaul Undong succeeded, and that the “spirit of self-help and independence” that is at the heart of its philosophy can set an example to the rest of the world.

Do you know of any other community-driven development schemes? Please leave a reply below.

Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

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For your reference:

* The Korea Saemaul Undong Center website 10 contains a wealth of English-language information about the movement: < 13 11>

Moore, M 1984, 'Mobilization and Disillusion in Rural Korea: The Saemaul Movement in Retrospect', Pacific Affairs, Vol. 57, No. 4, pp. 577-598. < 12>

Korea Saemaul Undong Center, Saemaul Undong in Korea. Downloadable from < 13 11>.

Lankov, A, The Korea Times 16 April 2010, Saemaul Undong Sets Model for Developing Countries. < 14>

Tran, M, The Guardian 28 November 2011, South Korea: a model of development? < 15>

United Nations Development Program, International Human Development Indicators. < 16>

United Nations, National Accounts Main Aggregates Database. < 17>

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