By Vahid Pourtajrishi

The future of Iran–South Korea relations is bright: analyst

July 15, 2016 - 15:51

TEHRAN – Myung-koo Kang, a professor of politics at Baruch College in New York, says that the prospect of relations between Tehran and Seoul is “bright’’

“I see the future is bright,” Myung-koo Kang tells the Tehran Times

Kang also sees General Park Chung-hee’s “economy first” ideology as the main engine of economic development in South Korea. However, he is greatly worried about a possible military confrontation between North and South Korea, saying, “If there breaks out a real war, both sides will get destroyed completely.”

Full text of interview is given in below: 

Q: What were the most significant works of General Park Chung-hee in the process of modernizing South Korea? 

A: First, he was successful in setting up a clear ideological vision for economic development. He launched an “economy first” ideology and was able to mobilize the Korean people to work hard to get out of poverty. Indeed, in the early 1960s, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Per capita GDP was lower than that of many Asian and African countries. During his rule (1961-79), South Korea was able to achieve an industrial take-off, transforming an agrarian society into an industrializing one. 

Second, he was successful in building a capable government with loyalists, committed to economic development or more broadly modernization of the “Fatherland". Immediately after he took over the political power by a coup in 1961, he conducted administrative reforms, strengthening the economic bureaucracy. He specifically created the Economic Planning Board (EPB) and used it as the pilot agency which was in charge of economic planning and coordinating macroeconomic policies. During his rule, he was able to recruit the most talented people of a society as government officials, based on higher civil servant examinations and other merit-based recruitment practices. 

Third, he was successful in instilling the Korean people with “we can do” spirits. In fact, the Korean people were placed in a helpless situation. Korea went through the Japanese colonial rule (1910-45), the Division of the Korean Peninsula, the Korean War (1950-53), and then the succeeding foreign aid dependent economy in the 1950s. Under the circumstances, many Korean people were not properly motivated for bright future or optimism about the destiny of the country. Under the circumstances, he was able to provide positive incentives for the people by making country’s economy prospering, based on an export-oriented development strategy and a heavy and chemical industrialization strategy. 

Of course, we cannot attribute the economic success of South Korea entirely to him. But it looks true that his regime contributed greatly to the economic development, which is the necessary condition for the successful modernization.

Q: Was the military regime the main engine of industrial development in Korea? Or, what was the main factor that contributed to the Korean modernization?

A: The period from 1950s to 1970s was decades of military coups and military regimes in many parts of the world. The Korean military regime was one of them. But what made it distinctive, probably, from other military governments is that the Korean military regime’s ideological commitment to economic development was strong and it pursued the goal consistently (or tenaciously). At least, it looks clear that the military regime tried to provide positive incentives to the Korean people that enabled them to work harder. 

But I would not say that Korean modernization was possible because of the military regime. Instead, it may be fair to say that Korea could modernize itself despite the oppressive military rule. If I have to choose only one factor that contributed to the modernization process, I would pick the Korean people’s zeal for education. Of course, the Korean government tried to provide good primary and professional education, but more importantly, the Korean people aspired to get more education for their social mobility and professional success. The zeal for education might have come from the strong tradition of Confucianism, which emphasized education and learning. 

Q: How much serious is North Korea’s threat to Seoul?

A: I would say that both North and South Korea are placed in a “balance of terror” situation. If there breaks out a real war, both sides will get destroyed completely. So, conquering the other side by the military or war is not a plausible option for reunification at all.

Many foreign people do not know how close from Seoul to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which divides North and South Korea. The distance from Seoul to DMZ is only 34 miles (or 55 km). But in Seoul about 10 million people live and in the metropolitan Seoul area about 25 million people, about the half of the Korean people, live. The DMZ is regarded the most militarized border on earth. Most military power (soldiers and other weapons) is centred around the DMZ. It’s estimated that the active North Korean military personnel is about 1.2 million, and South Korea’s one is about 600,000. If we include para military personnel in both sides, it exceeds 10 million. North Korea’s most artilleries (short and long range) are deployed targeting Seoul metropolitan area. Also, North Korea is believe to keep about 180,000 special operation forces. So, just in case any massive direct military warfare occurs between North and South Korea, civilian casualties and damages (including economic, social and political) will be unbearably colossal to South Korea. 

If I have to choose only one factor that contributed to the modernization process, I would pick the Korean people’s zeal for education. Of course, the Korean government tried to provide good primary and professional education, but more importantly, the Korean people aspired to get more education for their social mobility and professional success.

Legally speaking, North Korea and South Korea are under a cease-fire situation. The South Korean government didn’t sign the Truce agreement with North Korea after the Korean War. Also, Constitutions of both North and South Korea claim that the other part is only un-recovered area, illegally occupied by illegitimate governments. 

Any disruptions in North Korea (or the North Korean regime) may cause skirmish conflicts between the two Koreas near the DMZ area, as North Korean regime often tried to externalize internal conflicts to consolidate its own people, and those skirmish conflicts can be escalated into a full-blown war any time. So, the stability of the North Korean regime is very critical for the peace of the Korean Peninsula. But unfortunately, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-eun, did not have enough time and experiences to consolidate his power before he succeeded to his father, Kim Jong-il.  From the Kim Jong-il period, North Korea has pursued a “military first” policy and has tried to develop nuclear weapons, equipped with long range missiles, and Kim Jong-eun has more aggressively pursued this goal to consolidate his power quickly.

Right now, a real concern to the U.S. is that North Korea may transfer its missile or nuclear technology to terrorist organizations or other (rogue) nations. From the perspective of nuclear non-proliferation, North Korean nuclear development should be averted. Also, recent nuclear tests and long range missile tests have posed serious concerns in Japan. The Japanese people are really allergic to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. The U.S. wants to maintain a stable regional security order, consolidating the trilateral alliance with South Korea and Japan. So, containing the North Korean nuclear/missile threats is very critical for that purpose. 

Q: How do you evaluate the future relationship between Iran and South Korea?

A: I see the future is bright. Both sides can get economic benefits by strengthening ties. South Korean companies can participate in many economic infrastructure building projects and help transfer advanced industrial technology or knowhow. In return, Iran can provide oil and share its rich cultural heritage including the deep legacy of the Persian Empire to Korea. As economic ties become strengthened, other cultural and diplomatic relations will get better in the end, mutually beneficial for both societies. 

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