South Korea: Miracle of our times

Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne gave a speech on 16 May at Korea University in Seoul.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Jeremy Browne

It is a great pleasure to be here today at Korea University - which is affiliated with Nottingham University in England, where I studied. I understand that it is the tenth anniversary of the Division of International Studies and I am very pleased to be able to join you in your celebrations. It is entirely fitting that I should speak at an outward-looking, internationalist institution, with strong links to Britain, to advocate a general deepening of the relationship between our two countries.

In several speeches that I have given back in London, it has been noticed that I often mention South Korea. Sometimes I use you as an example for my own country to emulate, as I will explain. The Korean ambassador in London has even joked that I so often sing the praises of South Korea in public that he fears I might put him out of a job!

So I am delighted to have an opportunity to devote an entire speech to your remarkable country. Today, I want to explain to you why I have such admiration for your achievements. And I hope that you will trust me when I say that my praise is not the product of any duty I feel to be a gracious guest. I genuinely see many features of the Republic of Korea as a role model - for my own country, for Asia and for all states that aspire to both prosperous and free.

You have great influence and the potential to show important leadership in many areas. I want to encourage you to embrace this role, to lead by example, and to use your influence to promote prosperity, stability and human dignity around the world.

And, I want to make the case for a deeper, broader partnership between our two countries. We share common interests, common goals, common values - and we should work even more closely together to achieve them.

South Korea: Miracle of our times

It is my birthday tomorrow. I will be 42 years old. During my lifetime, the world has gone through intense and profound change. But, I do not think that any transformation has been as deep or as complete as the one that has occurred here in South Korea.

Over this time, the Republic of Korea has grown from an economy comparable in size to some of the poorer countries of sub-Saharan Africa, to be the 12th largest economy in the world today - worth over one trillion dollars. In doing so, your GDP has doubled almost nine times; your per capita GDP has increased by a factor of almost twenty; and the value of your exports is over three thousand times greater than it was in 1965.

It is a quite amazing achievement. It is made even more incredible by that fact that such growth has occurred despite a poor endowment of natural resources, despite having a small domestic market, and in spite of the constant threat to your national security that demands considerable attention and financial resources.

And I it is right also to emphasise that the enormous wealth that has been created has been spread remarkably widely across society by international standards. The Republic of Korea has a more even income distribution than Britain does. And it has a thriving multi-party democracy in which human rights and freedoms are protected by law.

Of course, statistics on economic growth can sometimes be difficult to visualise. So when I try to explain the scale of rapid development in South Korea to friends and colleagues at home, I tell them to imagine Gangnam, which, when I was born, was occupied by labourers in paddy fields. I then ask them to picture the skyscrapers, underground railway and businesspeople that live and work there today. This transformation has taken place in little more than a generation.

But your transformation is not just economic and it is not just local. The Republic of Korea has made a mark on the world. Your ships, cars and motorbikes transport people and goods to every corner of the planet. Your mobile phones, laptops and flat screen televisions allow people in each corner to communicate with one another.Samsung, LG, Kia, Hyundai - these are all household names today - in Britain and across the world.

Meanwhile, a Korean Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, leads the United Nations, 634 Koreans are taking part in UN peacekeeping missions and 306 Koreans are in Afghanistan supporting the international mission there. And in 2009, your country made the landmark historical transformation of becoming the first recipient nation of Official Development Assistance to reach the status of a major donor of such assistance.

And South Korea’s cultural and leadership role has also grown at a spectacular pace. You have hosted events of global importance in the sporting world like the iconic Olympics of 1988, the 2002 football World Cup, last year’s Athletics World Championships, and the Winter Olympics - which is due here in 2018 - and some of the world’s most important political meetings like the 2010 G20 Summit, and the recent Nuclear Security Summit.

South Korea: Role Model

So South Korea has shot to prominence - and rightly so. Your meteoric rise and the manner in which it was achieved is something that other countries should - and do - strive to follow.

There are several examples of states that have grown their economies rapidly over the last two or three decades. But there are few who have managed to do so in such an equitable way while giving their citizens the social and political freedoms in which to flourish. South Korea’s rapid economic growth has taken place against a backdrop of democratisation. It is a beacon of hope to those around the world who desire both increased economic prosperity and respect for their human rights and freedoms.

But you are also an example to already developed countries like my own. It is well known that many Western economies are still suffering from the financial crisis and its aftershocks in the Eurozone. Levels of growth are low and levels of public debt and unemployment are high. I am convinced that getting our economies back on track requires us to be more outward-looking - to export more, to be more competitive - to invest in infrastructure and education, and to reduce government debt.

I publically make this point often, and South Korea is a model with many lessons for us to emulate. Here, you export more than Britain, even though your economy is smaller than ours. The literacy and numeracy rates of your children are, by many measures, the best anywhere in the world. Your research and development is cutting edge and well supported. Your population is the hardest working in the OECD. And your government debt levels are low by international standards.

The modern Republic of Korea is an inspiration and an example to countries all over the world, from Asia, through Europe, to the Americas.

Today Korea stands proudly both as a high-income and as a high-growth economy. You have grown to prominence, to wealth, to influence. You have the ability not only to shape your own future, but also now the potential to help shape the future of the world order. I know this is a bold statement, but let me present you with three global areas in which I believe South Korea can show important leadership.

First is prosperity. Korean growth has been based to a large degree on international trade. Exports comprise about half of your GDP. Having little access to natural resources, you have had to import oil, steel and organic chemicals. So you will appreciate as much as any other country the benefits of free trade and open markets.

Yet global economic troubles and election cycles have led to calls in many countries for protection from markets. But such protection always invites retaliation, and tit-for-tat protectionism quickly escalates. As large exporters, both our countries need international trade.

This means that both domestically and internationally, Korea can set a strong example to the world. At home, it is important that your business environment remains open and outward looking; and that regulation remains stable, sustainable and transparent.

And internationally, I admire South Korea for being a strong champion of free trade. You are the only country in Asia to have signed Free Trade Agreements with both the US and EU. I have every confidence that Korea will continue to approach multilateral trade discussions with similar determination and imagination.

Long term prosperity will also depend on the sustainability of economic growth. Korea’s high growth has proven to be the most sustainable in the world to date in terms of the number of consecutive decades in which GDP grew, on average, by more than five percent per year. But looking forward, we all know that our consumption of natural resources and our emission of greenhouse gases are unsustainable. Our economies will have to make the transition to a greener model.

So you should be proud to have taken the lead in Asia by passing legislation to implement an Emissions Trading Scheme, starting in 2015. In doing so, Korea will demonstrate to other countries that growth can be green.

But you can go further still. If South Korea were to more loudly advocate low-carbon economies globally, other countries would listen. You could help other countries gain the expertise necessary to cut emissions and could export the required equipment. Everyone would benefit from a low-carbon global economy. And, with your political leadership and technical expertise, you have a big role to play in achieving it.

By playing its part in promoting free trade and green growth, South Korea would not only benefit the world economy; it would be helping to create the conditions necessary for its own continued prosperity.

The second area in which the Republic of Korea can have an important influence is global security and stability.

You recently hosted a successful Nuclear Security Summit, where more than fifty states made over one hundred commitments to nuclear non proliferation and to preventing the spread of dangerous technologies and materials. You also showed inspirational leadership by ratifying the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

Nick Clegg, our Deputy Prime Minister, and my Liberal Democrat colleague, who represented Britain at the Summit, told me that much of the Summit’s success can be attributed to the strong example set by Korea.

I know that nuclear security is a threat that is very close to home for South Korea. But there are other risks and threats further away that are also deserving of attention and action.

Events in the Middle East send tremors well beyond their immediate region. Even in Asia, the effect of this turbulence far away has been felt in the rising price of energy and food. And the implications of Iran’s reluctance to engage meaningfully with the outside world over its nuclear problem will be even more acute. South Koreans understand better than anyone else the destabilising effect of nuclear proliferation.

I know that the Arab Spring, intervention in Libya, pressure on Syria and nuclear enrichment in Iran are not geographically close to Korea. But in a world that is growing ever more interconnected, their effects will be felt in Asia. And, as a result, countries here in Asia have a reason and a responsibility to bring about peaceful resolutions to global problems.

South Korea can provide invaluable political support for efforts to resolve such situations. We are delighted that you have joined the Friends of the People of Syria group, are providing forces and aid to the international effort in Afghanistan and are contributing to international efforts to counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Your support for UN peacekeeping missions is also immensely valuable, it is respected throughout the world, and I hope that it will long continue.

And your economic size means that you can exert considerable economic influence. As one of the top ten importers of Iranian oil, Korea has an important role to play in assisting European and American sanctions on Iran by purchasing your oil from other producers.

So the Republic of Korea is demonstrating that its leadership can have a significant positive impact on the global security agenda. And you have the potential to have further impact. Your future support for efforts to stabilise countries around the world would be very much appreciated from Washington to London.

The third area in which South Korean leadership can have a major impact is on personal freedom and human rights. Already, the democracy in this country and the liberties enjoyed by your citizens set an inspiring example to the rest of Asia and beyond. But there are two very specific areas in which Korean action could encourage further profound change.

The first is cyberspace, where Korea is already actively supporting progress by hosting the 2013 Conference on Cyberspace, which will be the third of a series of conferences started by the London Conference on Cyberspace in 2011. The spread of the internet is creating a new world, more interconnected than ever before. And we are only now developing the framework of understanding that will govern how the internet is, and is not, governed.

So this is a momentous time. The rules that the international community decide upon will shape the future of internet usage. Britain is determined that these online rules are in accord with the rules we use, and the values that underpin them, offline. We believe that people should enjoy the same rights and freedoms in the cyber world as they do in the real world.

As the host of the 2013 conference, the Republic of Korea could have a big impact on the future of the online world by showing leadership in protecting online rights and freedoms.

The second specific issue on which South Korean leadership could have a profound impact is the death penalty. I know that no executions of prisoners have taken place here for fifteen years. So the Republic of Korea is in practice an abolitionist country. Yet 61 prisoners remain on death row. And other countries in the region can justify their use of the death penalty with reference to its place in Korean law.

By formalising your de facto abolition of the death penalty - as Britain did five years after its last execution in 1964 - South Korea would demonstrate a further willingness to curtail the barbaric misuse of state power which would contrast sharply with your neighbours whose use of the death penalty is condemned around the world.

I believe that South Korea has managed to sustain miraculous economic growth because of - not in spite of - your enlightened attitude to human rights. By granting your citizens political and social freedoms, you gave them the space to be creative; to innovate; to invent a new age of electronics which are now in high demand all around the world.

Personal freedom breeds collective prosperity. And this does not just apply domestically. By promoting personal freedoms and respect for human rights in Asia and beyond, South Korea can contribute to the stability and prosperity of the global economy.

Global stability and prosperity are shared goals. So the final case that I wish to put to you today is that our two countries should work together even more closely in support of common aims.

We already have a strong economic relationship and one that I believe will grow following the momentous EU-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, which came into force last July. It is the second largest agreement of its kind in the world, and by some estimates could boost two-way trade by over $45 billion. Here in Korea, retail prices of goods covered by the agreement are expected to fall by over six percent.

Over the last fifty years, the UK has been the second largest cumulative investor in Korea, and Britain attracts more Korean investment than any other country apart from the US and China. So our economic relationship has very strong foundations. But I am convinced that there is potential for it to flourish further.

Britain offers great opportunities for Korean investors. It is a springboard into the European Single Market - the biggest trading bloc in the world. Nearly half of all foreign investment into the EU is directed through our country and more overseas companies set up their European headquarters in the UK than anywhere else.

And we are working hard to attract even more foreign companies into Britain. We are lowering corporation tax to just 22 per cent by 2014. That is 18 per cent lower than it is in the United States, 16 per cent lower than in Japan, and 8 per cent lower than in Germany. And according to the World Bank, the UK already ranks 2nd in Europe, and 7th in the world, for ease of doing business. And we want to do even better. We are committed to improving this ranking by simplifying British and EU regulations.

I know that the Korean government has identified some specific areas for future growth: software, semi-conductors and pharmaceuticals. These are all sectors in which Britain excels and I hope that your companies will look to the UK for partnership.

In seventy two days, the world will look to London for the Olympics. Over the course of the Games, we will also showcase what Britain and British business has to offer to the world. And we hope to welcome many Koreans - athletes, spectators, politicians, media, businesspeople, everyone - to enjoy this very special summer with us. And we look forward to sharing our experience and working with Korea as you prepare to host the Asian Games in 2014 and Winter Olympics in 2018.

The partnership that I advocate goes beyond reaping immediate economic opportunities. I would like us to work even more together to create exciting new opportunities for our next generation.

I have enormous respect for Korea’s education system. That Korea’s secondary school students top OECD rankings is well known and widely admired. But the proportion of Koreans in higher education is less well known - and it is astounding. In 2005, our then Prime Minister, Tony Blair set a target of getting 50 per cent of young people into university, which many people thought would be too difficult to achieve. But I learnt recently that 74 per cent of Koreans undertake post-graduate level education. This is an amazing level of attainment which is underpinning your economic advance.

I want our two countries to be even greater partners in education. Britain is home to some of the best universities in the world. We are delighted to accept South Korean students to study at our greatest institutions. We have no cap on the number of student visas that we issue and the attraction for Korean students of the English language, rigorous academic standards, a cosmopolitan society and multicultural campuses is easy to understand.

And I would very much like to see more British students studying in Korea. Your universities may not have the long history that many of ours have, but they are strongly focussed on the future. They are at the cutting edge of innovation and attract the attention of businesses looking to recruit the brightest and best graduates for the international jobs market.

There are also vast areas for cooperation and collaboration at a research level. The UK research base is the most productive in the G8 and almost half of our published research is done in collaboration with overseas co-authors. Last year, there were almost a thousand joint UK/RoK scientific publications. This was a 25 per cent increase on 2009 and I hope that this trend will accelerate.

Opportunities for collaboration between our great educational institutions are demonstrated by the links between Korea University and Nottingham University, which I mentioned earlier. Both are members of Universitas 21, a leading global network of research universities. They operate exchange programmes and research partnerships. They even share a world class Professor of cognitive neuroscience in Steven Jackson, who is based out of both institutions.

Education partnerships can help to solve many of the problems of tomorrow. But it is not just the product of education that we care about - the process is also important. And the process - of bringing different people together, of swapping ideas and sharing success - forges strong bonds between societies.

That is why I am here today. That is why I am in South Korea. I want to help deepen the relationship between our two countries. That means even going beyond the crucial transactions of trade and investment. It means even going beyond important private sector and civil society links. It means building a strategic partnership in which we collaborate across the board in order to achieve our common goals.

As the world gets ever more interconnected, our challenges and their solutions will also become more interconnected. The strength or importance of a partnership should no longer be defined just by the physical distance between countries, or their cultural similarities or their shared histories. In our networked world, partnerships can now also be defined by their common goals, shared values and mutual understanding.

I believe that with Britain and South Korea, we have these facets in abundance. And we have much to offer from our side of the partnership. We are a major economic force, world leaders in financial services and home to some of the world’s biggest and most important businesses. We are at the cutting edge of technology, art, and fashion; we have some of the best universities and some of the most influential thinkers and media outlets.

But we are also major political force. Britain is the only country to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and membership of the EU, NATO and the Commonwealth. We contribute the second highest number of troops to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan; we were at the forefront of efforts in Libya and of international sanctions on Iran. We strongly believe in the institutions built to maintain global order and actively work through them to achieve security and prosperity.

South Korea has grown remarkably to economic prominence and political influence. You are a role model for countries far beyond your own part of the world. And you can exercise great leadership in matters of global importance.

Our two countries are obvious partners. And in confronting the challenges of the 21st Century, we should look to one another for deep cooperation and steadfast support.

Search the news archive

Published 16 May 2012