The fresh news from South Korea is that Park Geun-hye is its newest and first elected female President. The Gangnam Rapper and Kyung-sook Shin and her Man Asia Booker-winning novel Please Look After Mom preceded the latest developments originating from there. Hidden on the side, however, is the fact that Ms Park is the daughter of President Park Chung Hee, the longest-ruling strongman of South Korea, from 1960 to 1979. This is the main news but the details lie elsewhere, and these very details carry the following folktale, which is to compare notes on Nepal vis-à-vis South Korea: What these two countries were like, beginning from the 1960s, and what the scenario is today.
It’s said that Nepal gifted her organic and scented rice to South Korea during a food shortage there in the 1950s. Nepal’s Gurkhas were certain to be in the Korean War, but they had pending businesses to finish in Southeast Asia first.
Beginning with the 1960s, both countries had absolute rulers: Direct Dictator President Park Chung Hee in South Korea and Maximum Monarch Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in Nepal. Both countries remained closed; their citizens weren’t free to travel abroad, among other restrictions; and passports were premium documents sought by both Nepalis and Koreans. Human rights was a strange bird in both fiefdoms, and press freedom, transparent elections and other liberties were mere lip service.
It’s obvious that South Korea was much poorer than Nepal in those years. Ravaged by the Korean War, South Korea was rebuilding itself. Though it had an ally in the all-powerful United States, the latter provided only military industrial hardware to South Korea. In comparison, Nepal had already entered its Golden Age of Tourism, received regular remittances from its Gurkha and Gorkha soldiers in the British Army and the Indian Armed Forces; foreign aid and donors’ dollars had long started pouring in, along with foreign advisers and international consultants and other goodwill development gurus. South Korea had no tourism development and destinations as such, and was left largely high and dry and to its own devices.
However, both South Koreans and Nepalis wanted to go out and see the world. Here, President Park had firmer policies. He said to his people, “Okay, you want to go out? Fine! But I have some preconditions for you: 1) You go overseas, not as tourists but to work, and 2) Come back with some skills learnt, and 3) You return with some foreign exchange. Deal? Here you go, then!”
The result was that South Koreans returned as skilled plumbers, modern builders, technical construction workers, electricians, mechanics, crane and dozer operators, project overseers, and foremen. With money brought from overseas, they educated their children to be engineers, doctors, electronic specialists and technologists.
Meanwhile, Hyundai started building the first South Korean supertanker. “Let’s finish the job,” the boss said to the crew. “And I’ll give you a party where you can have meat, and plenty of it!” Soon, South Koreans were bidding lower than the Japanese for international construction contracts and development projects, and the Japanese shied away from the scene when South Koreans appeared. But in Nepal, they had their joint projects, as early as 1970. Japan’s Nippon Koei was consultant to South Korea’s Sambu Construction and Korean Development Corp. The historically unfriendly duo worked together to make more money and gain further experiences in Nepal, of all countries.
President Park was clever in money matters, too. He appointed chartered bankers to regulate South Korean contractors and consultants to see that not a dime was leaked out in any hanky-panky way. The strongman had solid methods for his plans and policies for South Korea.
In Nepal, things went in the opposite and lowdown direction from the very beginning. Let’s take the passport story. One folktale has it that one IMF man visited Nepal’s finance minister and said, “Hey, Mister Man of His Majesty’s Government of Nepal! Why are you hoarding so much money and not circulating it? You’ve amassed so much in military personnel’s annual remittances, seasonal tourism incomes, handicrafts export returns, foreign aid, donors’ funds and other resources, and your government sits on it. Why is this, and how come?”
So the first job was to liberalize the passport system of Nepal and allow more Nepalis to travel. This began sometime in 1975/76. The old hideously bound book was redesigned, the ancient 15-day visas and one-country permits were scrapped; passport holders no longer had to surrender them at the Gouchar Airprt on arrival; later the government even allowed the arrivals to take home their “cancelled” travel permits and keep them as “samjhanako lagi” memorabilia!
But the new freedom of movement birthed the infamous Dhakre or Dhakar or Doko porterage mule-train expeditions to Hong Kong and Bangkok for consumer commerce. Nepalis became upstart “Mananges” overnight. It was the first traffic of overseas Nepali porters who were paid the huge sum of one thousand rupees on return. The idea was simple: On your passport and return airline tickets, the government released certain funds in foreign currency for you. With these precious acquisitions, it was your handling agent and smalltime businessman who purchased “foren” goods in HKG and BKK in your name and brought the goods to the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) where the customs wolves waited for their pounds of flesh and blood from these carpetbaggers. You disembarked and went home. You would claim your passport and commission later at your own convenience.
This consumer caravanserai continued for three decades, day in and day out, with every overseas flight. Nothing was done to instigate the Nepalis to learn and gain from these external exposures that would have some tangible returns, as in the case of President Park’s South Koreans. The unbalanced import traffic also stymied whatever domestic production and even small-scale and cottage industry initiatives that could possibly be developed in Nepal. It was an import-based tomfoolery and dependent wastage on which the Nepal Government levied customs and taxes to get rich while the essence and kernels of Nepal’s genuine earning went elsewhere.
The foreign exchange leakages continue to this day for Nepalis to enjoy Chilean pinot noir, South African cheese and Arabian dates while unskilled and illiterate labor forces leave Nepal everyday. They remit their earning which enables us to consume more Australian lamb, Japanese sake and Jaffa orange, all imported on the strength of the money earned by them.
Today, South Korea needs Nepali workers whose forefathers once sent them rice in needy times. Today, South Korea is the ninth-to-twelfth economic power in the world, and surpassing itself in arts, literature, music, entertainment and other expressive spheres. Nepali teenagers ape Korean hairstyles, copy clothes and see movies while their parents survive on rent economy and maneuver bank loans.
Today in South Korea, the past dictator Park Chung Hee is succeeded by his own daughter as a democratic leader of a prosperous nation vying with Japan, Taiwan, and China in the neighborhood and other Asian Tigers in the region. The present South Korea was engineered by Park Chung Hee, and his daughter has the privilege of presiding over it. South Korea is in Nepal with KOICA, its Peace Corps-like volunteers and planting churches.
In Nepal, the picture is dismal all around. Both small nations had absolute and undemocratic rulers for the duration this piece tries to scratch the surface of, but while one led his country to a pinnacle of overall development, the other’s was led downhill to an almost bottomless pit. South Korea achieved progress and prosperity without human rights while Nepal’s lot has been despair in anarchy all along