Comparing Pakistan to South Korea: Lessons to be learnt

COMMENT: Emulating Korea? —Saleem H Ali
Daily Times, June 23, 2007

I arrived in Lahore this week for my annual family visit and while driving home in my jet-lagged daze saw a sign for “Korean language training” at a commercial plaza in Gulberg. This revelation was particularly striking, since only a few weeks ago I had visited South Korea and observed the remarkable number of Pakistani immigrants in Seoul’s Itaewon neighbourhood. A large mosque also towers above the rather shady inner-city suburb that is ironically also known for its assemblage of nightclubs and massage parlours. Halal meat shops and an enticingly aromatic “Hoor restaurant” can also be found amid these curvaceous streets.

Pakistanis are all too familiar with South Korean brand names: Samsung, Kia, LG, Hyundai, and most memorably Daewoo. What is perhaps less known and poorly understood is that South Korea has faced many of the same challenges as our country and yet followed a very different development path.

Fifty years ago, the country had the same level of poverty, civil strife and struggles with the military. Even now, a militant neighbour with an army of several million stands on its borders and brandishes nuclear weapons and inflammatory rhetoric spills forth quite frequently. Yet, the South Koreans did not let the politics of fear paralyse their development, nor did they fall for conspiracy theories of foreign intervention. Like us, they have also endured a legacy of colonialism and while wounds are still raw for many of the older generation against Japan, those legacies have not prevented them from building strong economic ties with their erstwhile “enemies”.

However, analogies have their limits and there are many ways in which the paths of our two countries have been very different. The Korean peninsula was at the heart of the Cold War’s ideological struggle, and was split asunder by secular ideologies rather than by religious difference. The South Koreans allowed American troops to be based on their land for security but also assumed their own defence responsibility with tremendous commitment.

Military service is compulsory for at least two years for all South Korean males and yet their army no longer controls the reins of power. Each Korean citizen can thus empathise with the army without being enamoured of its singularity as “the only stable force” — a phrase that many in our military elite like to vacuously repeat.

True stability, the Koreans have realised, does not come from mere fortifications but rather from lasting prosperity. The army is certainly an important means to an end but for sure not an end in itself.

Let us also consider the role that America has played in Korea’s development, for there is little doubt that without the intervention by the United States during the Korean war, the South would have become a totalitarian state. In America, the Korean conflict is frequently referred to as “The Forgotten War”. The success of this conflict that claimed more than 40,000 American lives is often eclipsed by the failures of the subsequent Vietnam war.

Perhaps, though, the military strategists at the Pentagon did not forget Korea altogether, because the future they had naively envisaged for Afghanistan and Iraq was modelled after South Korea. However, what they neglected to consider was that the level of suspicion and cultural resentment in Muslim countries is so high against the United States that any attempt at “imposed benevolence” would be rejected. Furthermore, the high level of civilian casualties that the US air strikes strategy caused in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a far cry from the more human battles of the Korean war. Thus, the level of sacrifice between the Americans and their South Korean partners was considered far more parallel and equitable than the current conflicts.

Thankfully, Pakistanis have not had to endure military conflict of this kind and our relationship with the United States should proceed without paranoia and Orwellian notions of hegemony. We should consider that despite its many follies in foreign policy, the Americans can be friends of countries without colonising them. South Korea is perhaps the most stark success story in this regard.

At the same time, the US should also learn from its experiences in South Korea. There is growing anti-American sentiment even there because of perceived paternalism that is audible from many US leaders. Helping countries in the role of a superpower must be offered with gracious humility and not with dismissive pride.

Let us turn to specific development lessons for Pakistan as well. First, the infrastructure development that occurred in South Korea was so rapid that there was tremendous environmental damage that is only now being realised. As one Korean professor informed me, some of the rivers in the industrial southern provinces are so polluted that the water cannot be used even for industrial purposes and this is harming regional economies. In this regard, South Korea has followed a more problematic development path and Pakistan is better suited to learn lessons from Taiwan or Malaysia, where environmental performance has been far better.

I visited the peninsula on the invitation of the South Korean government which has been trying to promote the establishment of an environmental conservation zone for peace and reconciliation along the demilitarised zone (DMZ) with its Northern neighbour. I had an opportunity to travel for over a hundred kilometres along this unique ecological region which cuts across the entire length of the Korean peninsula. Undisturbed by human activity, the region is rich with indigenous flora and would be a valuable ecological reserve. As for the fauna, they must still endure the legacy of over 2 million land mines that sadly haunt the landscape.

I was reminded of efforts to establish a similar ecological peace zone between India and Pakistan along parts of the Line of Control or in the Siachen region, which many of us have tried to promote as a scientific reserve. Neither side should feel threatened by such efforts since the environment which we share is a common asset whose destruction cannot benefit either side. It is high time that the Siachen peace park effort be revitalised by both Pakistan and India just as the DMZ peace park effort is being given national prominence in Korea. As the Koreans have realised rather lately, ecological conservation is not just a soft issue for peace-mongers and Green activists but a vital strategic priority.

Saleem H Ali is Associate Dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment. He is the editor of the forthcoming book Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (published by MIT Press, September, 2007). Email:


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