South Korea has become, in less than 50 years, one of the most developed countries in the world. According to the UNDP's latest Human Development Report, published for 2007/2008, it ranks 26th in the world, with a total HD index of 0.921 (out of 1.00). This is an astonishing success, taking in consideration that South Korea had, in 1960, a percapita annual income of $80!
What's South Korea's secret? What allowed this small peninsular nation, almost devoid of resources, to reach developed nation status in develpment indicators? Above all: hard work. A strong national work ethic, coupled to a strong national feeling for improving society, even when faced by the destruction of war, hardship, and poverty. All society worked in unison to reach clearly defined goals. Secondly, a strong social fabric tied to a strong leadership. For political and cultural reasons, this factor is unique to South Korea: it had a series of strong-handed military governments which set national goals and priorities with a clear agenda for everyone to follow. Also, the military governments found a receptive audience in Korea's Chaebols (the strong Korean business groups which control the larger part of the economy and which became the leaders in Korea's industrial and commercial success -while, of course, reaping the biggest rewards).
Another important factor is Korea's ethnic and cultural cohesion. Korea is one people, with one language, and one culture. There is a national ethic of hard work, respect for others, strong family bonds, and respect for one's "betters" (this includes intelectuals, rich people, and to those in command positions in society). This has brought a stable social order, low crime rates, a commitment to education and family improvement, and, in this meritocracy, the oportunity for social improvement for yourself or for future generations.
For historical reasons, many of these factors, crucial to its development, are ingrained in South Korea's culture. Even in the XVIIth century, civil servants were carefully selected from qualified applicants, and the king received reports of the province's selection processes. Also, Korea was located in an Asian crossroads, which caused repeated invasions, but also gave Korean people trade contacts with other societies, reaching as far as the Turkish Empire in some occasions.
Today, Korea thrives on this combination of factors: a strong government (which is nowadays a democratic, elected one, but with enough power to set a national agenda), a cohesive and culturally monolithic society, strong business groups, and above all, clear goals. This combination proved successful in the 60s, when the goal was to set a national heavy industrial base, with steel, petrochemical, shipbulding, and other heavy industries. This combination provided enough resilience as to withstand the "Asian Tiger Crisis" of the late 90s. This combination is paving the road for the country's future: IT, software, high added-value hardware, and international trade.
Something else: as a result of these factors, all South Koreans have benefited from the improvement. Korea has high human development marks, with high education and health access levels, improved living standards, good public services, and a trustworthy government leading the way.