The Anti-History of Korean Development

Here is an excerpt from an article that I wrote a while back on knowledge sharing in Korea:

Korea’s knowledge sharing initiatives are bearing the ill effects of the monopoly that the Korean state holds over interpreting and re-producing the Korean development experience. Given the continued political significance of certain historical policies and given the serious fragmentation problem of Korean aid, this means that not only is serious doubt placed on the idea of a single unified ‘Korean model’ or a single ‘Korean experience’, but formulating development policy based on aspects of Korean development can be highly politicized, and may in turn suppress any new innovative interpretations of how Korea developed.

For me that is the crux of the issue. International development has this way of warping common sense sometimes- why would knowledge pass through so many channels in any other case (business, civil society, libraries, groups of people, various associations, particular genders, generations, regions, etc.), but when it comes to development policy, the state and a select group of closely related academics get the monopoly?


Yes, the labor code existed. But does that mean that it was enforced, or that the labor movement did not have to fight tooth and nail to get where they are today?

Policy formulation is one thing; sure, you need technical experts to formulate policies, to make sure that they are complementary to one another, that they tie into global norms and regulations, and to a certain extent that they fall flush with other engagements that the country in question is making abroad (read: that it complements their diplomatic, get-the-copper-out-of-Africa strategies) .

But actually deciding what falls into the pan of ‘development history’, and how that history is interpreted and identifying what worked, what did not, who benefited and who did not, is something that is too contentious to leave to the state.

And the result is this: where is the voice on urbanization and the bad effects of eminent domain in the Korean development experience? The Korean government is fond of talking about how it built is social protection on private firms in the 1960s and 1970s before moving it to the public realm; but where is the story on the labor movement, and where are the denunciations of the growth policies that abused so many workers during the country’s industrialization? You can’t find stories like this (not proper ones at any rate) when the state is in full control of both the discourse of the country’s history and the lessons that are to be take therefrom.

It would be great to do an ‘anti-history’ of the Korean development experience, or a ‘People’s History’ Howard Zinn style, and see what development policies could come out of that…

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Chris Blattman

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