“Catching up”–conferences & SE Asia highways

It’s been quite some time since I have posted (teaching two classes this semester has had that effect), but I wanted to catch up by mentioning several conferences that I’ve been to this spring, and to give a plug for one or two others that I’ve heard about.

  Two took place earlier this spring at NUS, “Emerging SE Asian STS” (January 2009) and “Toward a Trans-Asian STS” (March 2009), and the other was that traditional behemoth, AAS (Chicago 2009).

  I’m lumping these together collectively because I think there remains a lot to offer in terms of comparative work with South Korea and other emerging / new nations which received substantial aid in the 1945-1970 period, including the ROK, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Vietnam.   That is, I’m becoming more obsessed lately with the loose notion of “comparative developmental states,” rather than South Korea or post-war  NE Asia in isolation. 

  Specifically, I’m interested in the role of South Korea as an agent of international / US construction interests, looking at the build-up of expertise and funding by Hyundai.  Just to cite one quick example, Hyundai worked on the Pattani-Naratiwat highway project (Dec. 1965-March 1968) in southern Thailand (almost on the Malaysia border) for their first big international project, losing money and going beyond the time projection in the process.  But the project was mobilized as a success and Hyundai contruction subsequently gained access to the Vietnam market, winning bids through RMK-BRJ, a Texas-based consortium (Think “Friends of LBJ,” as Brown and Root funded his 1948 Senate run) that controlled many of the bids coming from the US Navy.  Lee Myung-Bak was there, too, and many Korean elites used this context (SE Asia, Thailand and Vietnam) to build their careers.    

  I’ll be working on this more later, but mention it now as I’m familiar with the military role played by the South in Vietnam, but am just beginning to recognize the infrastructural role, especially when present-days scandals about construction in Iraq are still emerging.  It’s also another area with overlaps between Imperial japan and Imperial America, with South Korea acting as an on-site representative in the latter case.

  That’s just a brief note for now, and wondering if anyone out there has anything to say about “Scientizing Korea’ at USC this spring (April), or the upcoming Japanese science workshop (May) at UCLA?


  1. Interesting post John. The importance of Vietnam for the development of the South Korean economy has been noted by various scholars I believe. Basically the idea is that it played the same role as a procurement bonanza for Korea that the Korean War played for Japan in the 50s. There is an article (in Korean) on this by the Marxist economist Jeong Seongjin who attempts to show the precise relationship between South Korea’s economic growth and war-related procurement (chapter 3 in his book < <마르크스와 한국경제>>).

  2. Thanks for the reference, Owen, and if you have any other suggestions, please let me know; you’re absoilutely right, lots of people have outlined the broad contours of Vietnam-era procurements, but I haven’t seen that much that gets specific, especially in terms of individual projects and materiality. Also, I guess I’m more attuned to the SE Asian links now that I live there–thanks again, John

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.