The Next Global Superpower is… Korea?
Korea?! Are you scoffing? Readers, when you spied my headline did you think, “Mr. Hyena’s insane! Korea’s not a superpower; it’s a dwarf peninsula shuddering in China and Japan’s shadow! Korea’s a bisected baby-tiger south / starving-hermit north mess! Korea? Superpower?! Absurd!” Hear me out, netizens. I’ve categorized abundant facts explaining why a unified Korea (or even a solitary south) will emerge as world leader. It’s already preeminent in crucial categories. South Korea is not the destitute orphan pickled vegetable of the 1960’s or the laughable Hyundai of the mid-1980’s. SK is wired, willing, savvy, sexy and it works harder than any other hominid nation. Reunited with its surly sibling, it’ll be the Seoul center of the planet.
Direct E-Democracy: As the “most wired nation,” South Korea is 15 years ahead of the USA in broadband speed with 95% of its households online. Connectivity is aided by cramped population density in a tiny land — imagine 50 million people in Kentucky. South Korea dwells in a futuristic web frenzy with obsessive chat-room flaming, gambling, porn, games, avatar identity and social networking. The political plus: a vigorous “digital populism” instigated by bloggers and citizen reporters. Online residents of SK have overwhelmed corporate media, destroyed celebrity reputations and organized violent massive street protests at blazing speed. Politicians are now attentive. South Korea is consistently voted “Best E-Government Nation” because popular opinion is carefully consulted via government email, online polls and cyber forums.
Hardworking Economy: In 1960, SK was a famished pauper with a per capita annual income of $100. Since then, “The Miracle on the Han River” has boasted the world’s most explosive economy; 8.7% annual growth from 1960-1990 transformed it from agricultural hick into techno-metro sophisticate. SK is #1 in digital technology, #1 in shipbuilding, it constructed the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa in Dubai), the largest shopping center (Shisegae Centrum City), the biggest boat (cruise ship “Oasis of the Seas”), it houses Samsung, LG Electronics, Hyundai-Kia, Cyworld, POSCO, etc. How’d SK do it? Relentless education, long work hours (2,390 hours per person annually, 34% more than Americans) and brave creativity — they own the 3rd largest number of patents and they’re the “Most Innovative Country” according to Global Innovation Index. Meanwhile, though North Korea is one of the globe’s poorest nations — its citizens average 4 inches shorter in height than southerners due to malnutrition — it does have mineral wealth. Goldman-Sachs believes a unified Korean economy could rival Japan’s by mid-century.
Robot Future: South Korea is programming itself to become Cyborg Central and I wouldn’t wager a won against them. Currently ranked 6th in the world, the government is investing $750 million to become the world leader by 2018. Here’s a quintet of recent robo-projects: 1) They invented Mahru-Z (a blue “boy”) and Mahru-M (pink & female) — household helpers touted as the world’s most advanced ’bots in mimicry of human movement. 2) They’re building “Robot Land” — a combination grad school, R & D robotics center, and theme park with 340 robots, including 364-foot tall Robot Taekwon U, known as Voltar the Invincible to Americans. 3) They’re developing English-teaching robots to replace up to 30,000 human instructors at language institutes. 4) The government’s goal is to get a service robot into every home by 2020; one might be “Sil-bot,” a companion for elderly who plays games and maintains simple chitchat. 5) The DMZ inspired an “Intelligence Surveillance and Guard Robot” that detects and interrogates intruders, sounds alarms, and can fire with a Daewoo K-3 machine gun. Robot sales will soar exponentially in the next decade, with SK poised to prosper.
Military Might: Do you regard Korea as a frail, tiny protuberance? Ponder this incredible math — combine the active forces and reserves of both NK + SK and you get The Biggest Army in the World (wiki reference below). That’s right: Korea has 10.2 million soldiers, triple the USA military (3.3 million) and towering over even China (7.02 million). A unified peninsula would possess both northern nukes and tunnel-building skills plus southern shipbuilding prowess. I’m not saying a whole Korea would be the toughest tiger, but Japan and China won’t be waltzing in like they have throughout history. Globalfirepower.com rates the SK forces as 12th worldwide with NK at #20, and many pundits believe joint-Korea military strength is the principal reason Japan and China oppose reunification.
Massive Mineral Wealth: More arithmetic for you: The Rand Corporation estimates the cost of Korean reunification at $50 billion, Credit Suisse insists $1.5 trillion is the expense, and Stanford fellow Peter M. Beck posits an alarmist $2-$5 trillion. Question: Who’s got that kind of cash? Answer: North Korean mines. 360 minerals are sequestered in the Hermit Kingdom’s caves, many trapped by flooding and NK’s appalling infrastructure. Billions of tons of coal, iron, zinc, magnesite, nickel, uranium, tungsten, phosphate, graphite, gold, silver, mercury, sulfur, limestone, copper, manganese, molybdenum… worth an estimated $2-$6 trillion (Goldman Sach’s figure is $2.5 trillion). Reunification could be entirely paid for by these mines, perhaps with change left over.
Education & IQ Edge: Serious schooling is credited as the main ingredient in South Korea’s leap from rags-to-riches. SKs between 25-34 years old are now more likely to have an upper secondary education (97%) than anyone else in the world (claims an OECD report) and they’re #1 in reading and #4 in math (noted the 2007 Program for International Student Assessment). This places SK at #2 on the planet, behind Finland, even though SK is burdened with the largest class size in upper grades (20.1 Finns, 35.6 SKs). In 2005, more South Koreans were accepted into Harvard and Yale than Chinese or Indians, even though those nationalities outnumber them 22-1. Not coincidentally, South Korea also boasts the highest IQ of any nation, with Kim Ung-Yong as global champ. His IQ is estimated at 210. He could proficiently read Korean, Japanese, German and English when he was three years old.
In 1960, South Korea was a famished pauper with a per capita annual income of $100. 8.7% annual growth from 1960-1990 transformed it from agricultural hick into techno-metro sophisticate.
Green Goals: SK President Lee Myung-bak — a keynote speaker at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen — promotes an ambitious 20-year “low carbon, green growth” plan to vault his nation into world eco-leadership. Recent polls reveal that 53% of South Koreans view ecology as more important than economic growth. Responding to this are mind-boggling, beautiful eco-urban designs swarming out of Seoul: “farmpartments” for city vegetables, 50-floor towers constructed of geo-textiles and photovoltaic glass (Seoul Commune 2026), and giant greenhouse eco-domes (Ecorium Project nature reserve). Hyundai is racing hard to be car champion of fuel efficiency with its Hybrid Blue Drive. President Lee (surnames are first in Korean) was launched into office because he was the wildly popular mayor of Seoul, largely because he restored the Cheonggyecheon stream that was buried under concrete in the 1970’s, and established “Seoul Forest.”
Cyber Warriors: Cyberwar is the “warfare of the future… cyber attacks have the potential to damage our way of life as devastatingly as a nuclear weapon,” claims former director of US National Intelligence Michael McConnell. North Korea is prepared for this combat. Its elite corps of perhaps 1,000 cyber soldiers has already disrupted USA and South Korean networks. North Korean hacker-attackers are as skilled as the American CIA, claims Byun Jae-jung, researcher at South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development. (The USA is ranked best in the world by McConnell.) To counter NK viral intrusion, SK has assembled its own squad of 3,000 computer specialists. The resulting cyber-standoff duplicates the 38th parallel stalemate. Compelled by fear of each other, North and South Korea are developing cyber battle-skills superior to other nations. This will merge if they’re ever reunified.
Seductive K-Culture: Intense interest in South Korean socio-cultural products — dubbed “hallyu” (craze for all things Korean) or “Korean fever” or “Korean wave” — is a tsunami that’s engulfing the world. A 23-year-old Cambodian man interviewed by The Economist (1/25/10) dismissed American and Japanese cultures as “insipid relics” that have been conquered by the lure of hallyu. South Korean soap operas, video games, K-pop, fashion, and movie stars are obsessions throughout Asia, and in distant locales such as Chile, Hungary, Mexico, Norway, and Argentina. SK movie stars are mobbed at airports and chased by women on scooters; SK black market DVDs are sold in North Korea for ten times the price of American DVDs ($3.75 vs. 35 cents), and South Korea sells ten times as many cultural products to China as vice-versa. Why are youth infected with Korean fever? Is it the portrayal of a techie-mod lifestyle? Is it the emotionality and desirability of its stars? (Koreans are known as the “Italians of Asia” and a Washington Post reporter described SK male actors as “sensitive but totally ripped.”) Is any of this economically or politically important? Yes and yes. Seoul’s cultural exports double or triple every three years, and their trend-setting success sells other SK products, everything from shampoo to sweaters. Hallyu also promotes tourism, and former President Roo Moo-hyun once predicted that “hallyu will reunite the peninsula.”
Conclusion: I’m already a fan of kim chee and my cell phone is a crimson Samsung. In the future I might buy an eco-Avante, I might live in either a seasteading village-vessel made in Korea, or in a green sky-tower community designed and built by Koreans. At night, while my Korean robots clean house and cook dinner, I might relax in my Korean pajamas and watch Korean cinema on my giant plasma screen made in Korea. My conversation might be sprinkled with Korean words that I use to describe my new culture. Life is accelerating, and Koreans seem like they may be moving faster than anyone. I applaud the “Miracle on the Han River.” I admire their ability to jump out of the poverty ditch. South Korea is an inspiration. So will Korea be #1? In the last fifty years SK exceeded everyone’s expectations, so I won’t underestimate their ability, their perseverance, and their future.