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Richard Holbrooke on the Launching of New Songdo City

Richard Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke

I have been privileged to observe personally about sixty per cent of this remarkable growth since I first visited Korea in 1972. My frequent visits – almost 100 by my own count – since have made me a true believer in the genius and determination of the Korean people.

When I first visited Seoul, then a much smaller city, there was still a curfew, and I vividly remember people racing through the streets to get inside their homes or hotel rooms before the magic hour of 11:00 p.m. This was no joke; it was dangerous to be outside after curfew. The press was censored. Democracy was only the dream of a few brave dissidents, including one who had been kidnapped and whose life was in the greatest danger. His name was Kim Dae Jung. I remember racing to Seoul in1979, the day after President Park was assassinated; I was then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, and in the chaotic hours after President Park’s death we decided that, to show our support for the Korean people and to deter any temptation by North Korea to take advantage of the situation, we would move an entire American carrier task force into the Sea of Japan – a gesture much appreciated at the time.

Even then, however, the dynamism of the Korean people was already evident in South Korea’s rapid economic growth. But almost no one then thought that South Korea could make such a rapid and orderly transition to democracy, let alone host the Summer Olympics less than a decade after that dramatic event. I can remember arguing with learned conservative Americans over whether or not South Korea could become a democracy at all; many felt that Korea was not ready for democracy and that economic growth and political stability needed authoritarian rule. They were wrong.

I am well aware that some Koreans no longer wish to discuss all this history, that in the new attitude among many toward North Korea some feel that to revisit these events is to stir up old history best left buried. But my purpose in raising these memories is not to rekindle old anger or enmities. Rather, it is to stress how far the Republic of Korea has come in the course of less than thirty years – a very short time in the long and complicated history of Korea, and done so with continuous American friendship and support. I am told by my Korean friends that among some younger Koreans there is pessimism concerning their economic situation, or their political situation, or a new anti-Americanism. But let us put such views in their proper context: This is a natural product of democracy, and the Republic of Korea is now a fully functioning democracy. Democracy is sometimes messy, sometimes chaotic, and often disappointing – if you don’t believe me, look at the recent recall that led to Arnold Schwarznegger’s election as Governor of California, or ask Al Gore, who got 600,000 more votes nationally in 2000 than George W. Bush, but yielded gracefully to a controversial legal process that installed his opponent in the White House. But this is democracy – the best system of government in the long run, no matter what its difficulties, because, if properly structured, it allows the participation of everyone.

But back to New Songdo City. What the planners of this project have in mind sounds, at first reading, almost incredible. The numbers, the scale, would astonish even MacArthur: 1400 acres, 35,000 high rise apartments, 40 million square feet of office space, 11 public multilingual schools, a Jack Nicklaus golf course, world class restaurants, a waterfront that rivals Chicago, canals that rival Venice. And a hub of intelligence, art and technology that will rival any city in the world: a 60-story international trade center, top notch research and medical facilities, world renown art museums, and a multi-million dollar cultural center dedicated to leading performing artists, entertainment, and music. All of this to be completed in a remarkable 10 years time. Yet, I am certain it will all come to pass. This great nation has proven over and over again that it can do whatever it sets our to do (usually ahead of schedule and under budget).