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[Kim Seong-kon] What it means to be a developed country

The news that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development recently upgraded South Korea from a “developing country” to a “developed country” elated the Korean people greatly. Although the new title may not sound particularly fancy and South Korea may have been a developed country for some time already, Koreans still appreciate the official recognition by the UNCTAD and take it as more than a friendly gesture. Indeed, South Korea has come a long way to earn the honorable title from a poverty-stricken postwar country in the 1950s. Surely, it is the outcome of the Korean people’s conscientious hard work and indispensable help from our allies and friends overseas.

Nevertheless, we cannot simply enjoy the new title. A new status always entails responsibilities, integrity and dignity. This means, among other things, that we should actively help developing countries, especially through foreign aid programs administered by the UN. As a developed country, we also must cooperate with other developed countries to protect the world from global threats such as climate change, air pollution, pandemics, or terrorism.

Furthermore, there is a plethora of prerequisites for a developed country, as the term “developed” encompasses much more than simply being “economically developed.” For example, a developed country should nurture and promote liberal democracy. If liberal democracy is denounced within a country, we can scarcely continue to call it a “developed” country. An advanced country adopts the “rule of law,’ not “rule by law,” which is the tool of tyrants. The rule of law is an important marker of liberal democracy.

The government in a developed country does not and cannot manipulate its citizens, or put them under surveillance under any circumstances. Indeed, that is why developed countries have such considerable difficulty containing a global pandemic such as COVID-19. If a country does superbly well in quarantine, it is often the case that the country is close to an authoritarian or totalitarian society. Moreover, in a developed country, people do not witch-hunt or discriminate against CODID-19 patients. In the US, for example, no one knows who the patients are, except for the doctors and nurses at the hospital.

A developed country also does not infringe upon the freedom of the press. If the government tries to impose censorship of the press under any circumstances, the country is far from a developed one. The same thing goes for freedom of speech. In any advanced country, people can criticize the government freely without being intimidated. Therefore, if a columnist has to exercise self-censorship when writing for a newspaper, it means he does not live in a developed country.

If elected politicians seek revenge on their political foes and imprison them every five years, it cannot be a developed country either. If every new administration reinterprets our nation’s history according to its political ideology, it also means we still live in an underdeveloped country. George Orwell once said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” Watching what had been happening in South Korea, a foreign intellectual recently admonished, “If history is interpreted differently every five years, I wonder how we will know where we came from and where we are heading to.” If politicians tamper with historical facts, we will be lost in history forever and never be able to soar into the future.

Furthermore, the people in a developed country should be generous and tolerant toward other people and other nations. They should have the capacity to embrace other cultures and different opinions, too. If they are hostile to minority cultures and foreign customs, they are not yet ready to be a developed country. If they foster anti-foreign sentiments, denounce multiculturalism or claim homogeneity, it means they do not live in a developed country either. If they do not tolerate different opinions, they are still living in a developing or underdeveloped country.

A developed country should always exhibit decency and integrity. It will not frivolously ruin its relationship with foreign countries due to grudges, emotional overflows or political gain. Unfortunately, people are prone to emotional outbursts and amateurish politicians can irrevocably damage relationships with foreign countries. If that happens, the country will lose respect from the international community. If a country cannot gain international esteem and trust, it cannot be a developed country.

In a developed country, the government does not control everything. Thus, big enterprises can concentrate on their business without interference from the government, and citizens, too, can enjoy freedom and autonomy. If so, economic prosperity will surely come and people will be happy and content as well, enjoying high quality lives. Only in underdeveloped, totalitarian countries does big government try to manipulate everything.

Becoming an economically developed country is not easy. Being a fully advanced country in every respect is even more difficult. Still, however, we should strive to be the one that deserves the title, a “developed country.” Only then, can we become a truly advanced country.


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.
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