South Korea's story to date has in big part been the story of what is sometimes called a “developmental state”—that is, one that uses formidable powers to direct and regulate the economy to achieve growth above all else.
The first “Miracle on the Han” worked because the developmental state, after 1961, mostly got things right. Or, rather, it got them right until it got them very wrong, resulting in the 1997 financial crisis. By then, the economy and the way it was financed had become far too complex for traditional guidance, and the state’s sense of omnipotence had blinded it to the need for structural reform. The recovery from crisis accomplished only half the structural reforms South Korea needs. There will be no second miracle unless Mr Lee accomplishes the other half.
Now that he has recovered his poise after the beef fiasco, his supporters argue that Mr Lee is just the man for the job. Under him, says Sakong Il, chairman of the president’s National Competitiveness Council, restrictions will be lifted to augment the country’s low stock of foreign investment. Small businesses will be boosted when the government cuts through red tape and lowers the minimum capital requirement for start-ups to just 100 won, from 50m won now. And rules for investment will be eased in the Seoul metropolitan area, which businesses much prefer to the investment zones in the middle of nowhere promoted by Roh Moo-hyun, the previous president. The council plans to submit 147 laws to the National Assembly this autumn, with the aim, Mr Sakong says, of raising South Korea’s standing in the World Bank’s comparisons of national competitiveness from 30th to 15th.
All this is welcome, but it is not enough. Mr Lee, as a former chaebol executive, will need to prove that he is friendly to markets, not simply to business. “When critics say the chaebol are too big, I don’t know what they mean,” says Mr Sakong. “Bigness itself is not badness; what matters more is whether the actions companies take are legitimate or not.” That is fine as far as it goes. One test for Mr Lee will be whether he and the courts continue to treat the misdemeanours of chaebol bosses lightly. An even more telling one will be whether minority shareholders will be able to seek redress against chaebol trampling on their rights.
Old habits die hard
Traces of the developmental state persist. Although Kang Man-soo, the finance minister, blames heavy taxes, subsidies and regulation for a decline in South Korea’s investment rate, he also promises “a very ambitious plan” of subsidies and incentives for boosting internet businesses such as computer gaming. Known as “e-sports”, this has emerged out of nowhere and become a huge spectator sport, employing 25,000 people in Seoul and spawning nearly 100 game-engineering “academies”.
It is an example of Korean entrepreneurial energies let loose. The government’s proposals seem to represent an old-fashioned instinct to back winners.
Both the country’s patterns of energy use and its attitude towards the environment point more towards the past than the future. Randall Jones, an economist at the OECD, notes that South Korea uses 1.5 times as much energy for every unit of GDP as does Japan. For a country that imports all its hydrocarbons, energy efficiency will, the government says, be pushed to the top of the agenda. As well as promoting a more efficient industry, that will mean weaning Koreans off their gas-guzzlers and improving mass transit.
Seoul’s air, once famously noxious, is much improved, but South Korea lags at conservation. The developmental state is also a construction state, and too often the government seems to feel that nature untrammelled is a chance wasted. Two-fifths of the country’s rich mudflats, or about 1,600 square kilometres, mainly on the peninsula’s west coast, have been “reclaimed”. That has dire consequences not only for fishermen but for seabirds and rare waders too. Almost invariably the government and the construction companies trump environmental interests.
Just as South Korea’s economy is something of a half-way house, so is its democracy. The beef protests seemed to reflect this. Only a short time after Mr Lee had been voted into office, the protesters bringing downtown Seoul to a halt argued that theirs was a more representative kind of politics. That was clearly nonsense. Yet the nation’s political establishment hardly helped its case when the National Assembly was incapable of convening.
South Korea’s labour disputes can also be ascribed to an immature democracy. Workers’ rights were suppressed during years of military dictatorship. Unions have since made up for lost time, and even illegal strikes are tolerated at some of the big chaebol. Yet the strikes do not reflect an unbridgeable divide between capital and labour: rather, nearly all South Koreans are capitalists, and many of the strikers had voted for Mr Lee. Clear leadership from him could do much to put the country’s labour relations on a more stable footing.
The sense of something half-finished colours South Korea’s diplomacy too. Mr Lee has reiterated that foreign policy rests on his country’s military alliance with the United States, which he now calls a “strategic alliance”.
South Korea has already sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of American-led reconstruction, and Mr Lee says that in future it will spend more on aid and contribute more to peacekeeping and antiterrorism operations. This reinvigorated alliance, the president’s foreign-policy advisers explain, will not only boost South Korea’s global standing but also provide leverage with tricky neighbours, notably Japan and China, where relations are bedevilled by land and history.
That is probably wishful thinking. For no matter what efforts South Korea makes on the global stage, it is still a shrimp among whales in its own region, and even there the power of its American godfather may decline in relative terms. Only the unification of a divided peninsula might bring South Korea the standing it craves. And given the fearsome problems North Korea would carry with it, even that is far from guaranteed.