The Bitter Taste of Failure


Dharavi pipe walk. Credit: Meena Kadri, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

I watched from behind as a young teacher and a group of students who looked like they might be in the 6th grade clustered around an exhibit at the newly built National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul. In a glass cabinet lay a few documents and the teacher was animatedly explaining their significance to the students in their school uniforms. Since I don’t speak Korean I could not understand what she was saying. After a fairly lengthy discourse, they moved on to the next exhibit and I went up close to see what all that talk was about.

The centerpiece was a copy of the First Five Year Plan (1962-1966) of the Park Chung-hee regime (1961-1979). It marked the beginning of a two-decade long period of incredibly rapid capitalist growth at the end of which Korea had been transformed from a “bottomless pit” (as a USAID report in the mid-1960s had termed it) and an “economic basket case” (as it was referred to in all too many works in development studies) to one of the world’s most successful economies. From a per capita income less than Ghana’s during the time of that Plan, its phenomenal growth had led it to joining the exclusive club of the world’s most affluent industrial economies, the OECD in 1996. By then it had already had close to a decade of democratic rule as a wide-ranging social movement had overthrown the previously authoritarian order. In one generation, South Korea had gone from exporting wigs (made of human hair) to the world’s best manufacturer of steel, ships, and smartphones.

South Korea and India commemorate their Independence on the same day: August 15th. They were liberated from Japanese colonialism (in 1945) and we from the British (in 1947). Our independence was clouded by the violence of Partition. Theirs was followed by a decade of incredible turmoil as north and south became proxies in a global Cold War which ended with a Partition of its own along the 38th parallel. The casualties from the Korean War (1950-53) are estimated at between 2 and 3 million (and the total population of the peninsula was estimated at around 30 million at the time!)

Over four floors, the Museum constructs a simple narrative going from a fledgling nationalist movement in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, through the horrors of Japanese colonialism and racism, via the forced conscription of Korean lives and material for Japanese belligerence in World War II, to the huge losses of the Korean war, followed by rapid industrialization and democratization, culminating in a present marked by relative affluence. Its triumphalist narrative is leavened with some remarkably clear-eyed auditing of the incredible toll taken by the suppression of dissent, the repression of labor, and the enormous costs borne by the urban poor and women during the era of rapid growth.

I thought to myself as I stared at the unprepossessing document in the glass cabinet: is there a museum anywhere in India where we might proudly exhibit P.C. Mahalanobis’ Second Five Year Plan document? What might the teacher say to his or her wards as they stood around it? What does it mean to succeed at development and what does failure entail? As someone who was regularly taken on similar field-trips to museums as a schoolboy in the India of the 1970s I could not help contrasting my experiences then with what these Korean schoolkids were seeing. And the conclusion was rather simple if also trite and clichéd: nothing succeeds like success and nothing fails like failure.

I teach and do research in the field of international development. I know the practiced ease with which these contrasts between an India still overwhelmingly poor and a Korea that has made it will be explained: well, South Korea did benefit from very high levels of per-capita, strings-free aid from the United States as it was a frontline state in the Cold War; Japanese colonialism was very different from Western colonialism – as a late developer itself, Japan actually left an important bureaucratic and industrial legacy which Park Chung-hee was able to capitalize upon once he captured power; yes, but they were authoritarian and unlike us weren’t a democracy from the inception; all said and done, we’re talking about a total population that even today is less than three of our metros combined; and so on.

And the responses to these explanations are equally practiced and predictable: yes, but other frontline states that received a lot of aid (Pakistan and the Philippines come to mind) didn’t succeed where Korea did; India’s “democracy” is a thin electoral veneer that conceals authoritarian rule in the northeast and Kashmir, the plight of Dalits and the landless, and the world’s largest population of the destitute – while Korean “dictatorship” was accompanied by rapid near-universal literacy, excellent primary health-care, thoroughgoing land reforms, an impressive Gini coefficient indicating income equality, and the disappearance of grinding poverty in a matter of years.

No doubt that debate will carry on in some circles in India. The Koreans however have better things to do and bigger things to worry about. Like the battle between Samsung’s Galaxy and Apple’s I-Phone for world market-share. While our ex-Stephenians dazzle the Oxford Union in 2015 with their verve and propah accents in demanding reparations for colonialism (and thereby give new meaning to the term “arrested development,”) the Koreans settled economic accounts with their coloniser as far back as the mid-1960s and have in more recent times cleaned their clock in global competition.

I could assuage myself with all sorts of explanations as academics are wont to do, but the sheer inconceivability of a museum proudly exhibiting one of our Five Year Plan documents tells its own story. As I walked past the final exhibits on the 4th floor – portraying an optimistic future based on past success – I had to swallow hard to overcome a familiar, bitter taste at the back of my mouth: the taste of failure.

Sankaran Krishna teaches political science at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa in Honolulu. He can be reached at