|The Colombian and Korean leaders meet to talk trade.|
More than a half century ago, 4,300 Colombianos traveled halfway around the globe to fight communism. Today, they are forgotten combatants in a nearly-forgotten war. But they helped accomplish something for which South Korea should be perpetually grateful: today, South Korea is a dynamic democracy, while its northern neighbor is just about the globe's last totalitarian regime, with millions of its citizens in slave labor camps. South Korea's per capita GDP is $30,000, while the North's is one 12th of that. South Korea is home to some of the globe's biggest corporate names, incouding Kia, Mitsubishi and Samsung. North Korea has the distinction of being the world's only industrialized state to have experienced a famine.
So, those 4,000 Colombians who fought in the Korean War and in particular the 686 killed, injured, captured or disappeared there, made their sacrifices for something. During a visit to Bogotá this weekend, South Korean Pres. Lee Myung-bak told a group of aged veterans that his people "would never forget your sacrifice...and were forever indebted."
Colombia was the only Latin American nation to send troops to Korea. Whether the Koreans have or will repay that debt is a question for historians and the veterans.
But Colombia could find something extremely valuable in Korea's incredible story. A Japanese colony for most of the first half of the 20th-century, exploited and trampled by imperialist Japan during World War II, after the war the Korean peninsula was occupied by U.S. and Soviet forces. Since then, Korea has been divided in half, the southern part today prosperous and democractic, the northern part ruled by a lunatic family dynasty which makes itself feel relevant by building atomic weapons and bombing South Korean ships while its people starve.
In today's El Tiempo, Colombian Korean War veteran Isaac Vargas Córdoba recalls the Colombian Batallion's send-off in 1953: "(The Koreans) were displaced, naked, widows and orphans, left with a nation under rubble, its economy destroyed.
"Korea didn't sit around crying over its devastation," Córdoba adds, observing that today South Korea is democratic and highly industrialized.
If South Korea has overcome all of that, what does it say about blaming history for today's problems?
Colombia, with almost the same population as South Korea, but more than 11 times its geographic size and many more natural resources, has a per capita GDP only one third of South Korea's.
How has South Korea done it? Its leaders credit education, which is undoubtedly a factor. Another must be a strong cultural work ethic, perhaps intensified by the Korean people's many years of hardship and deprivation.
Today, South Korea and Colombia have just signed a free trade agreement. But it's hard for me to imagine how Colombia is in any condition to compete with a sophisticated, efficient economy like Korea's. More than likely, Colombia will just ship Korea raw materials, and buy back manufactured goodsfrom them.
How did Korea do it? There's a valuable lesson for Colombia.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours