South Korea: a nation with microwave ovens but little democracy

Seoul? Where on earth is Seoul? The folk out in Pennsylvania and Kansas and Ohio should be told. Not only because it is the capital of a nation and people that have a genuine warmth for the United States and Americans. But because the Republic of Korea is one of the extraordinary economic success stories of American foreign aid.

To someone returning to Seoul after a lapse of 15 years, the transformation of the city is astounding. This reporter remembers South Korea as a plucky little nation struggling to overcome poverty and the legacy of devastation left by the Korean war. It was doing quite well even then - with large US handouts.

Today, however, it is an economic leader - pushing into the century of high-technology with a speed and self-assurance that any advanced nation might envy. Signs of progress are everywhere.

Now a city of 8 million people, Seoul bristles with skyscrapers, handsome hotels, modern residential areas. Construction cranes are everywhere in sight as the city builds, builds, builds. Broad avenues intersect the town - Sejong Street is 16 lanes wide at one stretch and brimming with cars. A new subway is being extended into the suburbs.

Walk into Shinsaegae department store, and you can scarcely move for the crush of shoppers, all well-dressed and buying everything in sight.

Drive into the countryside toward the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea and your eyes blink. Where are all those thatch-roofed huts? Replaced by sturdy brick houses - with aqua-blue and red tile roofs adding islands of color across a bleak winter landscape.

The once-barren mountains, denuded of trees after the war as Koreans struggled to keep warm, are now largely covered with pines and other trees.

There are still pockets of poverty in Korea, but the average Korean obviously is living better. Annual per capita income amounted to only $100 in the early 1960s; today it is almost $1,700. In communist North Korea it is about $850.

Among Korea's exports today are sophisticated electronic goods, microwave ovens, and cars. Korea is now America's ninth largest trading partner.

There is little question that US largesse gave South Korea its start. The US has spent roughly $6 billion in economic aid; the final grant was made in 1977. To this must be added the $2 billion spent each year to maintain 40,000 American troops and equipment in South Korea and the $185 million loaned annually to Korea by way of security assistance.

But it is Korean industriousness and drive that have made the difference. Also important has been its highly educated bureaucracy, with its concentration of US-trained PhDs. Today, as a member of the Asian Development Bank and African Development Bank, South Korea is itself becoming a modest aid giver, illustrating that foreign aid can become the ''seed within itself.''

What is striking is the youth of the population. About 55 percent of South Koreans are under 24 years old.

The question intrudes itself: What kind of society will they create? Will they offer Asia more than the example of a successful consumer society? Will they be able to point with pride to an emergence of democratic government?

That is the question an American asks. It is easy to be impressed by the phenomenal growth of the economy under the shadow of North Korean guns and the constant threat of violence such as struck down some of South Korea's ablest officials in Rangoon, Burma. Seoul is, after all, only a short 26 miles from the communist North. No Korean can be unmindful of the unrelenting need for vigilance.

Yet, one thinks, if the nation has made such admirable strides in the economic realm, why can't it show its mettle politically as well? Authoritarian rulers like Chun Doo Hwan seem reluctant to cede power on grounds that ''the people'' will make a hash of things and jeopardize South Korea's security. But Koreans among most classes do desire more democracy; the right, for instance, to vote directly for the president.

While President Reagan's recent visit did not satisfy some elements of the dissident community, many Koreans hope his frequent mention of the need to develop political institutions and democratic rights will have some impact.

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