by Asmatullah Niazi

In late November 2015, I landed at Daegu airport, a western city of South Korea to attend the Global Saemaul Leadership Forum 2015.

Saemaul Undong, which is also known as the New Community or Village Movement, is a community movement designed to mobilise the economy through agricultural developments in villages or rural populated regions. Launched in April 1970 by the then South Korean President, Park Chung-Hee, it was said that the South Korean government attained substantial economic growth, especially in the rural areas, through this movement. 

This movement had provided a form of self-governance to the rural and local small communities as South Korea was in a state of turmoil after the Korean War. At that point, urban South Korea was rapidly developing due to industralisation, but the rural areas were stricken by poverty, widening the income disparity between the two areas. Saemaul Undong was effective in providing some form of balance between the urban and rural sectors of South Korea, and the concept was hailed a success in the 70s. Personally, I can vouch for its success as I have been to the villages, and it is near impossible to find people who are living well below the poverty line or begging on the streets, a stark contrast to the villages in Pakistan.

Following the success of this innovative movement in Korea, the Korean authorities had decided to export the concept of Saemaul Undong across the globe to benefit other rural communities. This concept would benefit a country like Pakistan tremendously today, as many of our village people are living below the poverty line.

However, Pakistan had not always been in such a sad state of affairs, especially in its agricultural sector. During my time in Daegu, I met a notable man, Mr. Ki-Myung Kim, a 72-year-old agronomist, community leader, farmer and blogger, who is active in his interactions on community blogs and social networks. 

Having learnt that I was from Pakistan, Mr. Ki-Myung Kim sat down with me and started reminiscing his time visiting our once great country, indulging me with his tales of travels from Khunjarab Pass, to Gilgit and Skardu, and expressing his love for the Pakistan that he remembered. 

His tone then took a serious turn, as he went deep in thoughts. What he said next to me really made me ponder on the direction that Pakistan had taken over these years. “Do you know that Pakistan was once a teacher to South Korea? But today, South Korea is teaching Pakistan,” said Mr. Ki-Myung Kim. 

Pakistan? A teacher? How was that even possible, I asked this man who was sitting next to me. 

Explaining his thoughts, Mr. Ki-Myung Kim told me, that after the Korean War, South Korea was in a state of turmoil. The population was hit by hunger and poverty, and the government was struggling to boost the economy of the starving nation. Things were looking pretty grim for South Koreans back then.

However, the government decided to capitilise on the potential that the Hangang River could provide the country, and decided on massive land reforms. This enabled South Koreans to tap into harnessing the country’s agricultural potential. Unfortunately, at that point, the agricultural techniques that South Koreans had were limited and not up-to-date, preventing them from quickly transforming the agriculture industry to one that was lucrative.

To get a head start, the South Koreans started looking to other countries to teach them the proper techniques and to provide trainings to the agriculturists, scientists, agriculture workers and landowners. Within South Korea’s region, countries like Japan and Philippines were doing better in the agriculture market. However, they decided to turn to Pakistan for assistance as back then, Pakistan was leading the way in agriculture, in comparison to the likes of Japan and Philippines!

So, it was then that Pakistan became a teacher to South Korea, with our country sending delegations and specialists in the agricultural industry to help the South Koreans navigate the lucrative industry. Unfortunately, while South Korea continuously kept improving their technologies and strategies in the agricultural industry till it is on par or above other countries, Pakistan began its downward spiral to the sorry state it is in today. Today, Pakistan sends its agriculturists and scientists to South Korean institutions to learn from them, making our country, which was once the teacher, now the student.

I asked Mr. Ki-Myung Kim on his thoughts as to what factors could have led Pakistan to its state today. He said that Pakistan is “too focused on just the paper work, and on what is on the table”. He went on to explain that the researchers in Pakistan today are no longer going into the fields to see what is going on, but rather just implementing strategies without having a firsthand experience as to what is on the ground. This is not a recipe for success, according to the experienced farmer and agriculturist. 

It is not too late for Pakistan to re-learn what it once knew, and surge forward in its agriculture industry. All our government needs to do is to place more emphasis on this industry and help the farmers, agriculturists and those involved in this market learn and create new technologies that will allow them to harness on the potential of the Indus River, which will in turn help boost the economies of our rural communities. I personally feel that in our country’s situation today, implementing the concept of Saemaul Undong will be extremely beneficial for our citizens, so maybe, one day; we can stop being the student and start being the teacher once again!