Seoul — Chang Jae Ho, a young South Korean from a poverty-stricken village, surprised his parents a few years ago by choosing to return home instead of finishing college.
Mr. Chang joined the Saemaul (new community) movement, a grass-roots program to improve rural areas. His first project was to persuade his tradition-bound neighbors to collect edible seaweed jointly rather than individually as had been done for centuries.
''Through patient persuasion,'' he says, ''I managed to get their consent. Our first year's earnings came to 3 million won ($6,198 US), almost double the amount of individual collection.''
Realizing the merits of joint efforts, villagers took part in Saemaul projects more willingly. With government help, they repaired roofs, constructed a breakwater, and built a road. Income rose nearly tenfold in a decade. ''Now every family has a TV set and more than half of them own refrigerators,'' Mr. Chang said.
The Saemaul movement was launched in 1970 by the late President Park Chung Hee to reduce the income gap between rural and urban areas. It is one of the viable legacies of the Park era that his successor, Chun Doo Hwan, inherited when he assumed power in 1979.
Early critics accused the program of being an attempt to win rural votes. Some in the opposition camps reacted similarly when President Chun reactivated the movement. But today most of this criticism has died away.
Many features of the movement have drawn the attention of Asian, African, and Latin American countries. Some 16,000 rural leaders from other nations have come to observe it since 1973.
For centuries, Korea's rural folks have collectively helped one another during the planting and harvest seasons. Thus Saemaul leaders told their villagers: ''Why don't we get together to modernize our homes and communities, especially since the government is now ready to help us with money and basic materials to do the job?''
The government has never set any goals for the rural areas: Each village sets its own every year.
Village leaders are periodically given instruction on self-improvement methods at the state-run Saemaul training institutes, not only by seasoned specialists but also by model Saemaul leaders. White-collar workers from the cities - university professors, government officials, and businessmen - take part in week-long Saemaul training sessions as well. Thus urban elite learn from rural leaders what is happening in the villages, while the latter acquire ideas from the former.
For 18 million rural South Koreans - some 42 percent of the population - there has been an unaccustomed sensation of growth. In 1970, rural income per household was $840 per year while that of the urban areas averaged $1,250 per year. In 1982, rural income reached $5,578 compared to urban income of $5,409.
(The latter figure refers only to the average urban wage-earner and does not include the average income of the urban employer, which is more difficult to figure due to income fluctuations by families who own their own businesses.)
A visit to a Saemaul village gives an insight into the reserves of efficiency South Korea is able to call upon. In a village community hall, for example, a Saemaul leader will typically display neatly ruled records of achievement.
Just as in Seoul, where government planners will drown their visitors in figures, so the Saemaul leader will recount just how much fertilizer the village has used, how many tons of rice have been harvested, and how many calves have been reared. In the countryside, the improvements look better in reality than they do on paper.
Due largely to the movement, South Korea is now self-sufficient in barley, one of its two staple food grains. The country will likely import rice until 1986, and minor crops such as corn and beans must be imported indefinitely, due to the shortage of arable land.
Particularly important are the new roads that have cut travel time and opened up many villages to tractors.
The government has directed some rural people to off-farm labor.
Today 80 percent of the rural population are in agriculture, while the rest of them are working in Saemaul cottage and fishing industries.