Seoul — In 1967, Chong II-mo was a retired lieutenant commander thinking of emigrating to the United States. But he stayed in Korea, and now he heads an electronics company with 180 workers in two factories, making a wide range of communications equipment.
Mr. Chong's story, and that of thousands of others in all industrial fields from cosmetics to steel, is what accounts for the phenomenal growth of South Korea's economy and for a gross national product that has shot up from around $ 200 per capita in the mid-1960s to a nominal $1,500 today.
Mr. Chong's Kuk Jae Electronics Company started modestly in a back street making alarm systems. He had just three employees, and his goal was to make an alarm system that was somewhat more sophisticated than the simple instruments then on sale in Seoul.
Like all beginners, he said in a recent interview, he faced many difficulties during his first two or three years. The money he had saved to go to the US was gone. He was deceived by those he had trusted. He had difficulty getting payment for goods he had already delivered.
But he persevered. Then came a break. North Korean infiltrators made a successful landing at Inchon, the port of Seoul. As part of a stepped-up surveillance program, the government required large quantities of reliable two-way radios and radio transcievers.
"We have a long coastline," Mr. Chong said, "and infiltration would be easy were it not for the loyalty of our fishermen." What the government did was to supply fishing vessels with two- way communications equipment. As a former naval officer, Mr. Chong was asked to go to Japan and look for the equipment easiest to use.
This was the start of his involvement in the radio communications field. At first he imported knocked- down sets from Japan. Then, over the years, his company has steadily expanded the range and sophistication of its models. Today , although in some areas the company still requires Japanese technical know-how, it is already exporting communications equipment to Thailand and other developing countries.
Compared with the giants of Korean industry -- Hyundae, the Lucky Group, or Samsung -- Mr. Chang's company is a pygmy. But it has an established reputation in its particular field. The path it has chosen, to produce incresingly sophisticated electronic equipment, is the path that Korean industry as a whole is going to have to follow if it is to keep a step ahead of other developing countries.
Mr. Chong appreciates the economic progress that South Korea achieved under the stern authoritarian rule of President Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated last Oct. 26. But he thinks the time has come for democratic rule to be restored, as the transitional government under President Choi Kyu-hah promises.
"Under democracy there is a lot of shouting, a lot of demonstrating, and you may say that this is a wasteful form of government. On the other hand, dictatorship may work for a while. But when it goes on for more than a decade there is bound to be corruption and mismanagement.
"then, to cover this up there is more corruption and mismanagement. As for me, I think the time has come for us to choose democracy, with all its inefficiency and waste."
He knows that 1980 is a tough year. With imported oil costing 60 percent more than last year, Mr. Chong, like other businessmen, is battling the ripple effects that have spread across the whole economy.
Nevertheless, he is not pessimistic about his country's long-term future. "Our workers are literate, well educated, hardworking," he says. In the final analysis, these are his country's only assets, and he and his colleagues look to these assets to ensure their own survival and growth in the challenging years ahead.