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The Peninsula

South Korea’s Role in International Development

Published July 24, 2012

By Joy Kim

South Korea is currently the world’s 15th largest economy. This fact strikes many as amazing given that Korea’s Gross National Product (GNP) per capita increased by more than 243 times over the span of 50 years, from $82 in 1961 to $20,000 in 2006. The baby boom generation who were born in the 1950s can attest to the dramatic changes in lifestyles following the GNP growth, from starving childhood to enjoying free phone calls via a smart phone application with their children studying overseas.

With positive changes in the lives of individual citizens, the nation as a whole also transformed its status in the international community, as Korea went from an aid beneficiary to a donor. Korea’s official acceptance into the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in 2009 marked the first time that a beneficiary turned donor joined the ‘assistance club’. Moreover, hosting the fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan last November contributed in establishing Korea as a donor country.

Korea’s changed economic and social status in the international community has brought more responsibilities and engagement in international development; Korea is increasing its official development assistance (ODA), actively sends volunteers overseas, and researches innovative ways to contribute to developing countries. However, challenges exist because of its lack of experience as a donor.

Korea benefited greatly from foreign aid during the reconstruction of the country after the Korean War in 1953 when the majority of aid came from the U.S. and Japan. With Korea’s membership in OECD-DAC, Korea has expressed its goal to increase its foreign aid to 0.25% of its Gross National Income (GNI) by year 2015, which amounts to $3 billion. This is a twofold increase from the current amount.

Aside from the monetary foreign aid assistance, Korea has been actively engaging in establishing development institutions for effective coordination and promotion of volunteering programs. Similar to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) was established in 1991 to implement the government’s grant aid and technical cooperation programs. KOICA works on all aspects of development from education to disaster relief.

Korea has also been actively participating in overseas volunteer programs. Similar to the Peace Corps program in the U.S. which traces back to 1960, Korea has an integrated overseas volunteer program called World Friends Korea (WFK). Korea is a beneficiary of the Peace Corp activities, as volunteers helped to reconstruct the war devastated Korea from 1966 to 1981. Now, World Friends Korea coordinates various overseas volunteer programs, from cultural exchanges to IT education.

More importantly, international development is not a foreign concept to the Korean people anymore. The concept of charity and responsibility, as well as willingness to help developing countries, is developing as a cultural norm in the Korean community. Many NGOs are being established, including Good Neighbors, a Korean NGO that is currently working in 30 countries, and the first Korean NGO to achieve the General Consultative Status with the United Nations. Big private companies such as Hyundai are also launching their own overseas volunteering programs.

While Korea’s repositioning in the international community as an aid giver follows similar models and organizations of that of experienced donor countries, Korea should and is able to contribute additional unique and practical assistance given its own development experience. Korea has been active in sharing and transferring its development knowledge and technology to current developing countries since 2004. Through the Knowledge Sharing Program (KSP) under the Korea Development Institute (KDI), Korea provides practical and useful policy alternatives based on similar cases experienced by Korea in the past. Many developing countries turn to South Korea for inspiration and lessons for development. However, developing countries should also recognize that the development of a country is ultimately in the hands of the citizens of the country. Foreign aid can catalyze development, but cannot achieve development alone. Volunteers alone cannot reform the developing countries. Knowledge sharing can serve as a guideline or support, but nothing can be a blue print for the ultimate path to prosperity. After all, Korea’s development success also had many different contributing factors; its export-led macroeconomic policy, the intensely motivated citizens, and a nationwide campaign (Saemaul movement) for rural development to name a few. However, political turbulence and uprisings along the way were also unavoidable. Every country faces different political cultures and economic contexts that Korea’s development model cannot be exactly copied and pasted.

Korea has as much to gain as to give through more active participation in the development community. With Korea’s dedicated efforts in upgrading Korea’s image in the international community as ‘Global Korea’, active engagement in development assistance can act as positive diplomacy. In addition, through cultural exchanges such as World Friends Korea’s Korea Taekwondo Peace Corps Program, Korea is able to spread and educate global citizens about Korea’s unique culture, in this case martial arts.

Challenges also lie ahead. Even with best intentions, international development assistance cannot come to fruition if the activities from different organizations are not coordinated well at the ground level. With the government, various NGOs, and private sectors jumping in on the international development bandwagon, coordination is needed to deliver good results. Also, the best students do not necessarily make best teachers. While Korea is one of the few countries that succeeded in effectively utilizing foreign aid to build its domestic economy, Korea now needs more development professionals who are experts in transferring knowledge, and effectively coordinating and implementing aid and volunteer activities.

With Korea’s capabilities to assist developing countries through financial and educational means, now is the time to reciprocate the favor that Korea received from the world half a century ago.

Joy Kim is an M.A. candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Ken Bank’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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