Insights and Analysis

As HLF4 Host, Korea’s Own Development History Inspires

November 30, 2011

By Edward Reed

It is entirely appropriate that the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness is being held in the city of Busan, South Korea. In many ways, Busan symbolizes the story of Korea’s transition from poverty and aid dependence to aid donor and host of the most important global meeting on development cooperation. Forum participants from around the world are marveling at the glass and steel towers and the busy port. But go back a few decades and the picture was very different.

Busan Port HLF4

Thousands of delegates descended on Korea's major port town, Busan, this week for the HLF4. Photo: Flickr user: LWY

During the Korean War (1950-53), Busan was the only major port that did not quickly fall into North Korean hands. Through that port, war material and humanitarian supplies flowed into the devastated country. For many soldiers, aid workers, and journalists, Busan (then spelled Pusan) was their first view of this largely unknown country, and the first impression was almost universally negative. The surrounding hillsides were covered with the shanties of millions of refugees who flowed into the enclave. Nevertheless, with massive external assistance, Korea went on to recover its lost territory and begin the arduous task of rebuilding.

During the 1950s and 60s, the international community, especially the United States, stepped in to support Korea’s reconstruction and development with direct budget support and technical assistance. Then, aid flowed through the port of Busan in the form of the “three whites” (sugar, flour, cotton) that met the immediate needs of the people and helped re-start the economy.

When Korea’s development drive got underway in earnest, under the five-year plans of President Park Chung Hee, the flow of materials reversed, and Busan became one of the main portals through which Korea’s exports were sent out to markets around the world. This was the start of the “miracle” of rapid economic transition that eventually made Korea an advanced industrial state. In the process, Busan, like the capital Seoul, was transformed into a modern metropolis that would not be recognized by Korean War veterans from abroad or even by those, like myself, who first visited the city in 1970.

Government officials and civil society representatives from around the world frequently visit Korea to try to tease out the lessons that might be applicable in their own countries. Just a few weeks ago, The Asia Foundation hosted a delegation from Timor-Leste that wanted to know how Korea built strong institutions for planning and, by effectively guiding the use of foreign aid, how it kept, in the language of the High Level Forum, “ownership” of the development process. But more than the details of history, it seems that what the Timorese and others take away from Korea is inspiration:  to aim high, to demand results, and not to be satisfied simply with more aid.

Korea deserves recognition both for its successful economic development, but also for its strong commitment to assisting other countries that seek to follow in its path. In today’s world of recession and austerity, Korea stands out for steadily increasing its aid and for its commitment to doubling its development assistance by 2015. Also unusual is the level of public support by Koreans, across the political spectrum, for Korea to play a major role in assisting the development of other countries in Asia and beyond. Surveys show that the Korean public is aware of the critical role that aid played in their own success and they expect the country to assume responsibilities commensurate with its new status.

So, as delegates from around the world assemble in Busan this week to discuss how development cooperation can better contribute to development results, they should take time to appreciate the symbolism of the setting where they are meeting, and the successful lessons that Busan, and Korea as a whole, can teach us about overcoming great adversity and obstacles to achieve a better life for all.

Edward Reed is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Korea. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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