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'From Rocks to Riches - Korea's Transformation' - Tony Reedman of the British Geological Society (2001-03-06)

Mr Reedman first went to Korea some thirty years ago , as part of a project with the Department for International Development, and has been going regularly ever since. As a geological expert, his task was to help in the training of Korean geologists and in directing the exploitation of Korea's mineral wealth. The talk was accompanied by slides, and vividly illustrated how much Korea has developed over the last thirty years.

Thirty years ago, Korea was unspoilt but poor. The majority of the population were peasants. Roads and bridges would be promised before an election, but would never get completed. Villages had to maintain their own roads. Mr Reedman showed us a slide of Seoul in the 70's, which looked bucolic in comparison to today's seething metropolis. He also showed us slides of traditional peasant housing, of which today only a few remain as tourist attractions. In cold winters, people would burn coal brickettes under their houses, which sometimes led to carbon monoxide poisoning. Mind you, when he told us that the old houses used to use paper instead of glass for windows, you can see why people were willing to risk it!

Mr Reedman's talk vividly illustrated how a country's wealth is linked to its mineral deposits. The money for Korea's initial development came out of the ground. Tungsten, coal and limestone are all vital ingredients for construction, needed for making steel and cement. The electronics industry requires large numbers of minerals, and high levels of mineral use is apparently THE indicator of how advanced a country is. It was well known that Korea possessed large mineral deposits: Japan occupied Korea partly to exploit her resources. However, pre 1970, most mining was still being done by hand, a slow, hard and dangerous job.

With mechanised mining becoming the norm, fewer jobs were available at the mine face and people migrated to the cities. Resources became available for the birth of a car industry and ship building. The success of the Korean ship yards put the UK shipyards out of business. However as one industry grew, another declined, and when the coal mines were closed, the limestone industry became the big earner, producing more revenue than the entire energy industry. Well everyone needs cement, don't they? The Koreans had adapted superbly to the new demands of industrialisation - look for example at the success of Daewoo and Hyundai, which has made South Korea, at least pre-98, the strongest of the 'tiger economies'. But it all started with rocks.

The changes that industrialisation brought about has meant that Korea today is very different from the one Mr Reedman knew in 1970. Korea is mountainous, and only one third of the land can actually be developed. There has been a constant migration from the countryside to the cities, which has made for huge, densely populated cities, and traffic problems, spawning Korea's green movement.

However people are much wealthier than before, embracing modernisation whilst retaining respect for the past. Some slides showed Korean festival days, when people wear traditional costumes and visit newly restored temples. Mr Reedman said that the Korean resentment of Japan is unabated, but interestingly, he added that the Americans are also resented for their continued presence in Korea, which some feel is delaying the rapprochement with the North.

This was a very good talk, which not only gave a new insight into how a country actually develops, but also was full of interesting anecdotes and snippets of Korean culture. It was very clear that Mr Reedman has a wide knowledge of, and affection for, Korea and its people.

summary by Kate Mulrenan