Saemaeul Movement Goes International

The Chinese government will reportedly dispatch some 30,000 civil servants to Korea over three years so they can learn about the Saemaeul or New Village Movement, a government-run rural development campaign dating back to the 1070s. Over the long term, 350,000 Chinese civil servants will be trained in Korea. In February, President Hu Jintao and ranking officials from 31 provinces and cities studied the history and successes of the Saemaeul Movement at a weeklong retreat. The fourth largest economy in the world, China is troubled by a growing gulf between urban and rural incomes, with farmers earning no more than one-third of urban workers. To improve the lives of its underdeveloped farming communities, Beijing has alighted on the Korean program.

Several other countries in Asia and Africa have been trained in Korea on the Saemaeul project, with some 40,000 public officials and farmers from over 160 countries attending training courses at Saemaeul-related agencies and local government institutions. Even North Korea's Kim Jong-il has cited the Saemaeul Movement's contribution to the development of South Korea. But at home, it is treated with contempt. Modern Korean history books, approved by the authorities and taught to high school students, disparage it as a means of justifying the authoritarian government's grip on power and as "putting the stress on changing the outward appearance of farming villages." They tend to be keen on food-less North Korea's Chollima Movement instead, as a successful campaign that has "played a major role in constructing the socialist economy by rallying the masses' passions."

The Saemaeul Movement succeeded because it ignited the farmers' "can-do" spirit. In 1970, the first year of the campaign, the government encouraged 35,000 villages across the nation to widen village roads and build bridges and warehouses by distributing to each of them 335 sacks of cement. The following year, the government screened 16,000 villages that performed successfully and gave them more cement and reinforcing bars while suspending aid to unsuccessful ones. That encouraged rural villages to develop through competition -- in stark contrast to the incumbent government's practice of scattering taxpayers' money across the country for the construction of administrative, reform or business towns under the cloak of promoting "balanced development."

If China achieves social integration on the strength of the Saemaeul spirit it has learned here and then floods our market from a position of economic power underpinned by that integrity, will those who are now so determined to erase every trace of the Park Chung-hee presidency and disparage the Saemaeul Movement admit their mistake?

englishnews@chosun.com / Jun. 13, 2006 00:17 KST