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Raymond J. Learsy Headshot

Oil Poor Korea Lapping OPEC Countries With Discipline and Ingenuity

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Dateline: Seoul, Korea. - This is not Tehran. This is not Riyadh. This is not Lagos. Neither is it Caracas. In short, I am reporting from the capital of a nation that is not a card-carrying member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. And, from my vantage point, that makes all the difference.

South Korea is a country without oil, with very few natural resources, comparatively speaking -- some coal, a little tungsten, and molybdenum. None of which grabs the headlines or drains the purse as does oil. But, today, despite having been colonized, partitioned and ravaged by war twice in the last 60 years, South Korea is a dynamic country of great spirit, a tremendous work ethic, and an almost miraculous record of economic achievement. This Asian powerhouse supplies the world market not with oil passively pumped from deposits put there by good fortune and the luck of happenstance, but with an impressive list of tools and technology that help run the workaday lives of people everywhere -- goods conceived and created by Koreans. The local economy boasts the world's largest steel mill and its largest shipbuilding company, and Seoul is in the midst of a construction boom that fills the horizon with cranes and other heavy machinery.

Amidst the hustle and bustle of a vibrant but often gritty city landscape, a traveler can be brought up short by oases of almost breathtaking beauty. There are parks, gardens, extraordinary museums, and examples of classical Korean architecture. These sites are serene, contemplative, and emblematic of a people wedded to their culture and proud of their heritage.

But what strikes me as perhaps most significant to Korea's world-beating success is the fact that there are no easy riches here. This is a disciplined culture yet secular in its governance. There are also no government-supported messianic and hate-infested cults, and no export of regional one-upmanship. Here is a democratic country -- far from perfect, as human endeavors always are -- but viable and energetic and governing for the greater national good while still remaining responsive to the needs of its citizens. The Korean people have a voice in their government which, though not without the occasional headline grabbing scandal, works to assure their rights are respected, and the worth of the individual is valued. Poverty is virtually nonexistent, and no other country in the world is so technologically interconnected as Korea. Society prizes education and its access by the masses, both male and female. Ninety-nine percent of its people are literate and some 40% have a working knowledge of English.

It is also a country that understands and encourages individual responsibility for the community as a whole. As example, every family can have one car that is taxed at normal rates, but the second car triggers a 60 percent tax premium on the car's cost. Annual registration taxes also vary according to general automobile usage and road congestion: the greater the general usage, the more every driver is made to chip in. In addition, cars that enter Seoul's city limits carrying three passengers or more enter for free, but those with fewer than three passengers must pay an "entry" toll equivalent to $3 per vehicle. With a nod to its high-tech capabilities, Korea relies on a web of technology-enabled viewing posts to keep drivers honest. None of this is yet the American way, but it does point to a government that at the very least is conscious of the need to do something about the downside of an auto(and hence oil)-addled society.

Could we say the same about Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, or the rest of the OPEC cartel nations? Where in these oil-soaked environments do we find successful democracies, a desire for peaceful and prosperous interaction with neighbors at home and abroad, plentiful jobs, stellar economic achievement related to something other than dumb luck, and educational opportunity for both men and women?

Korea, to its great good fortune, never had to confront the problem of having too much of a good thing, unless if that good thing happens to be plain old-fashioned hard work. Problem-plagued OPEC countries are too busy fixing oil prices to have the good sense to emulate the Korean model. And for that we are all the poorer, and I don't mean simply because of the price of oil.