South Korean Lessons For Pakistan: The Saemual Undong Movement

Once upon a time, Pakistan was South Korea's teacher, providing it with a blueprint to develop its agriculture and spur development, but now, South Korea teaches Pakistan

South Korean Lessons For Pakistan: The Saemual Undong Movement

Seeing years upon years of disarray in my motherland, Pakistan, I sought to travel abroad to see how the world had found solutions to similar problems. 

I recall it was at the end of November 2015 when I landed at the airport in Daegu, a western city in South Korea. I had braved a long journey to attend the Global Saemaul Undong Movement Leadership Forum 2015.

Saemaul Undong is a civic movement to mobilise village communities and rural populations through agricultural production, household income, village life, communal empowerment and regeneration, and women's participation. Launched in April 1970 by former South Korean president Park Chung Hee, it is said that South Korea attained economic growth through this movement, and I have personally seen villages where one hardly finds any beggars or impoverished people. This movement provided self-government to rural and small local communities as South Korea emerged from the turmoils of the Korean War.

After its success in Korea, the Saemaul Undong movement is spreading worldwide to benefit local rural communities in countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Soon after landing at the airport, I dashed into a small hotel in Daegu, the fourth-largest city in South Korea. One fine morning, chilly winds began blowing, signalling the onset of the cold season. We were waiting for the bus to take us to the workers' convention, where around ten thousand workers, as well as media representatives from other countries, were to be briefed about the Saemaul Undong movement.

Before leaving for the convention, an old man with a floppy hat on his head came down to me at the hotel and said, "Sir, from which country are you?" I told him about Pakistan, and he spontaneously responded, "Oh, Pakistan is a great country." He then requested that a lady sitting next to me accommodate him so he could have the seat next to me.

After the Korean War, South Korea sent delegations to Pakistan for training in Pakistani agricultural institutions, which were the best at the time, and this continued till South Korean training institutions were strengthened at par with other countries

It turned out that the old man was a 72-year-old agronomist. He started narrating tales from his many visits to Pakistan, starting from the 1970s until the early 1980s, recalling his visit to the picturesque Khunjerab Pass, Gilgit, and Skardu. He said life and travelling in Pakistan had been quite difficult: he explained that he returned to Islamabad by bus after spending 28 hours on the road. He inquired if the situation had improved or if it was still the same.

I said, "No, now life is much different, and you can reach Gilgit in 16 hours as the roads are much better due to the construction of the Karakorum Highway". He smiled and continued to express his love for Pakistan. Then he went into deep thought and said, "do you know that once Pakistan was our teacher, but now we teach Pakistan?"

This proclamation took me by surprise. Curious, I asked him how Pakistan could be South Korea's teacher? He drew a long breath and said, "Look, soon after the Korean War, we were in bad shape, and the entire population was hit by hunger and poverty. Floods were common, and the government was struggling to boost the economy".

He went on to say that the Korean leadership decided to benefit from the potential of the Hangang River and undertook massive land reforms through the constitution, which provided every South Korean citizen with a piece of land, as this was thought to be essential for the country's agricultural and economic growth.

I asked him, "Why is Pakistan now lagging behind in the field of agriculture, and what happened to it?" He responded sharply, "Now Pakistani officials, researchers, and scientists only work on tables; they don't go to the fields, they just do paperwork and no practical work".

The old man added, "Our agricultural techniques were bad and old, so we were looking for a country that could provide better training to our agriculturalists, scientists, landowners, and agricultural workers".

"In the region", he said, "we had Japan and the Philippines, who had a little better situation, and out of the region, Pakistan was the country that had a much better situation than even Japan and the Philippines, as far as the agriculture sector is concerned. So South Korea started sending delegations to Pakistan for training in Pakistani institutions, which were the best in agricultural training, and this continued till our training institutions were strengthened and at par with other countries". He proudly said that today, Pakistan sends agricultural scientists, landowners and workers to South Korea, as it is now much better than Pakistani institutions.

His disclosures astonished me and I asked him, "What happened to Pakistan? Why is Pakistan now lagging behind in the field of agriculture, and what happened to it?"

He responded sharply, "Now Pakistani officials, researchers, and scientists only work on tables; they don't go to the fields; they just do paperwork and no practical work."

"So now Pakistan is behind us, but we have greatly benefited from Pakistan," he said.

During my university days, I had just heard about Korea, which had adopted Pakistan's first five-year plan designed by the late economist Dr Mahboobul Haq, but hardly anyone mentions this fact. However, the old agronomist admitted that South Korea's agriculture sector greatly benefited from Pakistan's experiences.

In Deagu, I met yet another Pakistan lover, Mr David InYeup Song, a professor at the Korea National University of Education. He wrote a poem on Pakistan in Korean in which he declared Pakistan a sacred land. 

The conference, for which I had journeyed to Korea, was addressed by heads of state and government, including those from India and Pakistan, through video links. However, from Pakistan, a third secretary from the Pakistan Embassy in South Korea attended it in person since, for some reason, the Pakistani ambassador to South Korea had decided to stay away. I was even more curious when I learnt that Pakistan is not even a member of the Saemual Undong Movement despite being offered membership by South Korean authorities.

In Pakistan, villages and rural communities are migrating towards urban centres in search of a better life, and thousands of acres of arable land are being converted into housing societies to cultivate concrete on them instead of boosting agriculture for food security. Pakistan, which was self-sufficient in wheat and rice, now imports them by spending billions of dollars every year.

Pakistan can still progress if it pursues real agriculture growth, taps the potential of the River Indus, and provides proper guidance and training to farmers on the latest techniques. Land reforms, as seen in Korea, will pave the way for better agricultural output and exports, which will lead to national food security as well as a stable economy.