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Lessons from South Korea’s Saemaul Undong: To Nigeria and the Developing World

Lessons from South Korea’s Saemaul Undong: To Nigeria and the Developing World

Enshrined in principles of self-help, cooperation and diligence, Saemaul is arguably the world’s most efficient development model. The Saemaul Undong movement is reputed as being the single most important factor in South Korea’s rise, which is often described as “Miracle on the Han River”

But as the President Choi Oe-chool of the Global Saemaul Development Network, conveners of the Global Saemaul Forum testified, S. Korea’s transformation was not a miracle. At least not in the sense that the word miracle elicits in some quarters, as something instantaneous-like portrayed in a magic trick of some sort. Koreans put in a lot of hard work to change the way they thought, the way they did things and the general principles by which they lived and ultimately created the wonderful society they enjoy today.

When I came to South Korea, I had no idea what Saemaul was and what it truly meant. I hadn’t the faintest idea of the vastness it had achieved. But in less than half a year, I am an apostle of Saemaul, sworn to spread it to the corners of all developing nations, including Nigeria, my fatherland. Nigerians have heard the rhetoric “mental reorientation” repeated so much that the phrase has been rid of all noble intent and now depicts nothing beyond mere political hogwash. Yet, we must again dig deep and find the right way to pass this message to everyone seeking a development model that works. I am not necessarily saying Saemaul is transferable, hook, line, and sinker; but its ability to be applied in almost interminable ways in local communities, transforming them into economically viable settlements, is unprecedented.

Perhaps that’s the reason behind Saemaul Undong’s adoption by the global community. Organizations and programs like the UN, WTO, UNDP, SDGs etc. now imbibe a variant of Saemaul or its principles.

Saemaul -It captures a simple yet effective mix of self-help and cooperation and diligence

During the just concluded Global Saemaul Forum, world leaders gathered at the Hyundai Hotel in Gyeongju to exchange knowledge and experience in adopting various forms of Saemaul in numerous disparate environments. The one thing that stood out was the seemingly over-flogged issue of “attitudinal change”. Speaker after speaker reiterated that without changing the way a group of people think, nothing could be done really; and therein lays the brilliance in Saemaul. It captures a simple yet effective mix of self-help and cooperation and diligence. Looking at this document decades later, it is impossible not to appreciate the foresight of President Park Chung Hee. The essence is to inspire individual development, and then elicit a synergy of enhanced individuals, willing to persevere together in diligence. The simplicity cum effectiveness of this model cannot be overstated.

African delegation at the just concluded Global Saemaul Forum 2016
African delegation at the  Global Saemaul Forum 2016

Permit me to strike an analogy. Take my country Nigeria, for example. It has a population of 180 million. That means at any one time, it can exert a force 180 million man strong. Then take S. Korea with a population of 50 million, which is relatively less compared to Nigeria’s, but strengthened by the Spirit of Saemaul, they exert a force not 50 million man strong by 50 million raise to the power 50 (i.e. 50 * 1050). That is the power of SAEMAUL.

That is what nations stand to gain, a geometric rise in the ability to produce. This analogy is conceived from the “energy slave” concept and it is possible for nations like Nigeria to hypothetically multiply its perceived economic strength by anything between 180 million times 1020 to 180 million times 10100.

I am thoroughly enjoying my stay in South Korea, and beyond the formal class education, I feel connected to the wonderful people, the deliciously healthy food, the sense of community, the astonishing advance in technology, the living breathing example that modernity does not necessarily mean a decline in morals or societal degradation and the high value system. I could go on and on but long articles make for boring reads and I’d so much like people to read this.

Anyone who knows about Saemaul has probably heard too much about South Korea before the 1970s and how President Park Chung Hee penned down a charismatic document historically and effectively falling on the same level as documents like Manga Carta and The US Declaration of Independence, except a little more relatable, implementable, and adoptable. Yet we must talk about South Korea’s past and how they overcame chronic poverty, with little resources but strength of purpose and conviction. In this regard, it is truly a miracle and nothing short of magic, yet the sort that requires all hands on deck to perform.

Let me sign out with the words of Professor Choi Oe-chool, at Global Saemaul Forum. “The Saemaul Soldier is armed with a warm heart and his bullets are self-help, cooperation, diligence, sharing, service and creativity. He/she studies, plans and moves to combat out poverty wherever it exists.”


From a Saemaul Soldier and an Apostle of Saemaul,

Hemenseter Butu.

Hemenseter writes from Daegu, South Korea where he is currently enrolled for a Masters in Environmental Management and Policy. He tweets via @HemButs

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