I returned a few days ago from two weeks in South Korea, a country I first visited in 1993. I've noticed many changes in multiple trips over the last two decades, but on this visit these changes came together in a new way.
- Unlike the United States, Korea has invested in a high-speed rail system (KTX). I rode KTX several times from Seoul to the station near Musangsa at speeds of 300 kilometers/180 miles per hour. The train condensed a 2.5-3 hour car trip into 1 hour, 10 minutes. The United States has one segment of "high-speed" rail, the Acela system, running between Boston and Washington D.C. at a whopping 84 miles per hour.
- Unlike the United States, Korea has invested in high-speed Internet access - 1 gigabit per second. This is approximately 200 times faster than the speed in most American households. And Koreans pay an average of $27 per month for this service, about half the cost paid by most American households. As far as I know, the U.S. lacks a national policy on Internet access, an incredible infrastructure failure.
- To an American, the Korean "interstate" highway system is astonishing. The roads are remarkably well-maintained. Rest areas (more like shopping malls) are placed about every 30 miles along the routes (when I drove across the U.S. last February on I-80, my aging bladder sometimes had to wait for 100 miles or more). Signs are marked in both Korean and English.
- The center of Seoul is remarkably clean, something that can hardly be said about any American city. Legions of uniformed workers walk the streets picking up the tiniest bits of trash. Of course, Seoul has its problems, like any other city of its size. But it invests heavily in quality of life and visitors notice.
- Korea provides all citizens with inexpensive, complete health insurance through a single-payer model. Even Obamacare will not match the Korean system for service, price and convenience. Still, large segments of the American public cannot stomach the thought of something as simple as universal healthcare.
Eventually I started wondering how Korea could afford these investments.
With a little noodling, I discovered that the United States spends 4.8% of its Gross Domestic Product on the military. On the other hand, South Korea (a country still at war with North Korea) spends 2.7% of its Gross Domestic Product on the military (World Bank data).
Have the Korean people simply decided to invest in themselves rather than in war? This would certainly explain how South Korea has grown from total devastation to the world's 13th largest economy in sixty years.
I truly don't know how Korea has paid for its investments. But the country's rapid growth makes me curious about the hidden costs of spending 50% of American tax revenue on the preparation for and fighting of wars.
Photo inside a KTX car on the way to Musangsa.