A Tale Of Two Countries

By Tsvi Bisk

Korea and Israel should form partnerships in a variety of national-universal projects designed to solve crucial problems facing humankind.



Individuals have difficulty living a meaningful life without some kind of personal vision of the future, and their place in it. This is also true of nations. The need for a vision that infuses life with transcendent meaning is even more essential once all the physical necessities of survival have been achieved – this is a truism that reflects Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


 Self-made men and women who have raised themselves by dint of their own energy and hard work, upon reaching middle age, often experience a sense of existential emptiness; a malaise that derives from the unarticulated question: now what; even greater material wealth?  The alienation and dissatisfaction of second and third generations of young people born into relative prosperity is even more acute. It is a story repeated in country after country across the globe. It stimulates world-weariness on the one hand and political activism and spiritual searching on the other hand.

The 60s in America and Europe were the cultural model of post WWII civilization. The ’60s’ cultural model occurred in other countries much later.  To a degree they are now occurring in Korea and in Israel. More and more young people are looking for meaning beyond the consumer society.  This is because individuals living their lives according to a transcendent idea, with inspirational aims are themselves uplifted – as with individuals, so too with nations.

Globally, of course, there is still much to be done to achieve a ‘more perfect’ material society; to alleviate the outstanding pockets of global poverty and inequality and to create a global economy in which ever-growing numbers of individuals can optimize their abilities and reach a satisfactory level of self-actualization. Not only would all humanity benefit from such an ambition but the aspiration itself could be translated into a transcendent collective national vision. Alleviating the dreadful material conditions of our fellow human beings while saving the environment is a transcendent idea in itself.

This would be a national universal vision; i.e. a vision reflecting the cultural values of the nation and the skills and ambitions of its citizens, the implementation of which would not only benefit the nation but also the entire human race. It would be a vision realized by concrete projects that would materially benefit the countries that undertake them by way of benefiting all humankind. It would be a modern iteration of the old Quaker slogan “doing well by doing good”.

I suggest that this course of action be pursued by Korea and Israel.  More important, I suggest that Korea and Israel form partnerships is a variety of national-universal projects in pursuit of this vision. This is because Israel and Korea complement one another; where Israel is weak Korea is strong, where Korea is weak Israel is strong. Israel’s freedom to fail mentality is a good antidote to Asian fear of failure. Korea’s trans-generational mentality is a good antidote to Israeli short-term thinking.  And its stringent management discipline is a good antidote to sloppy Israeli management practices.


Korea and Israel have been two of the biggest success stories of the last 50 years. Korea’s economic success is unparalleled in human history. According to the World Bank, in 1961 Korea had one of the lowest standards of living in the world – $92 a year per capita compared to Egypt’s $151 a year per capita (based on nominal GDP not PPP). By 2012 it was $31,950 while Egypt’s was $6,474. It had only recently suffered a terrible civil war with the North, aided and abetted by the Chinese and initiated by Stalin. The Korean War had followed on the heels of a brutal Japanese occupation which was accompanied by indescribable horrors, especially during WWII. The Japanese occupation of China, Philippines and Korea has been called “The Asian Holocaust”, with as many as 30 million Asians killed by the Japanese – a number comparable to the Nazi death machine in Europe. A living example of this atrocity were the 200,000 ‘comfort women’ that the Japanese enslaved for the sexual needs of her soldiers. A humiliation analogous to the Jewish women enslaved for the sexual needs of the Nazis.

South Korea had few natural resources, little arable land and was distant from the major world markets of the time. (Japan was still recovering from its utter destruction, China was still in the grips of Maoism and S.E. Asia was abysmally poor.) From this unfavorable position, through sheer will and work ethic, by 2014 the Korean people have created one of the most developed countries in the world despite being surrounded by enemies and under constant security threats.

Korea’s political development parallels its economic development: from various stages of dictatorship, Korea eventually (in 1987) evolved into a functioning constitutional democracy with a three-branched government system concerned with protecting the unalienable individual rights of its citizens. Given that in its entire 5,000 year history Korea had little inkling of either democracy or constitutionalism, this political achievement rivals its economic achievement.

Israel’s achievements have been just as dramatic. In 2012, according to World Bank, Israel’s per capita income was $31,869, an extraordinary achievement considering its turbulent history and the fact that it had to absorb a massive immigration unmatched by any other country in history. In 1948 the newly established state of Israel had a Jewish population of 650,000, a medieval infrastructure and little that could be called a modern economy.

Between 1948 and 1965 Israel absorbed over another million refugees (700,000 from 1948 to 1952 alone) most of whom were forced to live in decrepit refugee camps (tents and tin shacks) for years. These refugees were absolutely destitute; they arrived with the clothes on their backs and a suitcase or two. They were the European Jewish survivors of the Holocaust as well Jews from the Muslim countries of North Africa and Asia who had been expelled from areas they had lived in for over 2,000 years. They had nothing and they came to almost nothing in terms of housing, roads, schools, agriculture, and water. From this inauspicious beginning, Israel, like Korea, built one of the most innovative economies in the world, even while fighting five wars and laboring under a crippling defense budget.

During 1950–66, Israel spent an average of 9% of its GDP on defense. Defense expenditures increased dramatically after both the 1967 and 1973 wars. In 1974 Prime Minister Golda Meir’s government almost doubled defense spending, so that it reached 47% of the national budget, and 37% of the GDP. It reached 24% of the GDP in the 1980s. During this period Israel absorbed another million immigrants.

Yet despite this, Israel’s achievements, like Korea’s, have been spectacular. Israel has more high-tech start-ups per capita than any other nation. It leads the world in civilian R&D spending per capita. It is second, behind the U.S., in the number of companies listed on the NASDAQ (ahead of Japan, Germany, France, England, China and India). Israel, with only eight million people (smaller than Seoul), attracts as much venture capital as France and Germany combined.

The qualitative gap between Israel and her Arab neighbors is enormous. By 2012 Israel had recorded 16,805 patents in its history, while the entire Arab League (with a population of 350,000,000) had recorded 836 patents. In 2008 alone, Israel registered 1166 patents, more than all Arab states had done in their entire history. Israel spends twice as much on scientific research as the entire Arab world: 4.7% of its national output is dedicated to research; the highest proportion of spending in the world.

Israel’s political history is no less impressive. By 2014 only 22 countries had been continuously democratic since 1948, the year the State of Israel was established. They included: Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, France and the United States.

That Israel was even included in this ‘Club of 22’ is extraordinary. Israel achieved democratic maturity and created a constitutional tradition faster than any other society in human history and did so fighting for its very existence in war after war. The millions of refugees and immigrants it absorbed mostly came from countries with no democratic or constitutionalist traditions whatsoever – just as Korea eventually created its constitutional democracy out of  a history also devoid of such traditions.

Israel has created a functioning parliamentary system in which even Arab MK’s who are enemies of the very idea of a Jewish State have freedom of speech and have often presided as acting Speakers of the Knesset. It was also the only former colony, mandate or protectorate ruled by an imperial power included in the ‘Club 22’ and the only democratic country in history that has been in a formal state of war, with all the constitutional dilemmas that implies, since its founding.


Both countries have achieved so much.  Yet despite the fact that they still have much to achieve they both seem to have lost a sense of purpose.  Their ‘purpose’ had been to escape the grinding poverty and redeem the oppressions of the past.  To a very great degree both have done that. Now both are possessed of a questioning mood – what to do next?  Many in the younger generations of both countries have trouble getting enthusiastic about the tremendous achievements and heroism of the pioneering generations. There is an unarticulated collective desire to devote themselves to their own new heroic projects – projects that address the needs and reflect the skills of the 21st century.  Without such projects, Israel and Korea are in danger of falling into a national malaise that has infected ever-growing portions of the developed world (Japan and Europe and even parts of ever-optimistic America).

How to avoid national malaise? By forming national-universal projects that materially benefit both countries and spiritually benefit the individuals that take part in them, while addressing the still unmet material needs of vast portions of our fellow human beings.

I propose that Korea and Israel join forces in three fields. Every living thing on earth requires food, water and energy.  No human being can live without these.  Environmentally friendly food production is becoming a must as agriculture accounts for over 20% of manmade greenhouse gases (more than all the vehicles in the world which account for 18%). Moreover, if the human race sticks to field grown crops we would have to plow an additional area of land the size of Brazil or the United States.  This amount of available arable land simply does not exist.

One of the areas now being explored is urban vertical agriculture. This is an area in which Korea has become one of the pioneers and which Israel’s hothouse technologies can enrich. Urban farms can be built over urban deserts such as roads and parking areas. The airspace over a developed country’s road system can feed that entire country, enabling conventional farmland to revert back to forests and grasslands.  Seoul and Tel Aviv would be ideal laboratories for turning entire cities into self-sustaining sources of food.  The technologies developed would enable both countries to become major exporters of urban agricultural systems and help eliminate world hunger at the same time.

The field of clean-tech, particularly water and alternative energy, is another ideal area for Korea and Israel to cooperate on. Water is one of the greatest challenges facing humankind and promises to become a bigger world market than oil. The market for water treatment systems, products and services is already over $500 billion a year (not including bottled water). Some experts project a $1 trillion a year market by 2020 and others predict an $800 billion a year market in Asia alone by 2035. At present, as a point of comparison, the total global energy market is $5 trillion dollars a year from all sources (oil, coal, gas, hydro-electric, and alternative).

Israel is already a major world power in water technology systems, water conservation and recycling. But it does not have the industrial muscle to properly leverage its technological and scientific know-how into a world class operation (not only for its own benefit but for humanity at large).  Korea does have the necessary industrial muscle to leverage Israeli technology into a world class sector. Its high quality standards, its economies of scale, its productivity and efficiency can dramatically lower the costs of many Israeli innovations making them universally available – even to the poorest countries. Moreover, Korea’s engineering genius would most certainly make its own improvements to Israeli innovations improving them beyond measure.

Bilateral water projects would put Korea and Israel at the forefront of one of the biggest and certainly most vital markets in the world.  Korea and Israel can become to water what Saudi Arabia and Iran are to oil.

The second major project is related to oil and the development of alternative energy resources that would castrate the political and economic power of oil.  Korea and Israel should combine in a bi-national project to make both countries energy self-sufficient.

Since both countries are for all intents and purposes devoid of substantial conventional energy resources, they would be forced to become pioneering innovators in various areas of alternative energy in order to achieve self-sufficiency. In the initial stages there would be no obvious economic justification for such a project.  But like the American Space Program, which had no economic justification at the time, it would give both counties a tremendous head start in these necessary technologies which would pay tremendous dividends 20 years down the line.

A comparison could also be made to Israel’s water technology.  Israel was forced to develop water technology given that it is one of the driest counties in the world and was completely isolated from its neighbors.  30 years later this head start in water technology began to pay tremendous dividends as Israel was recognized as a world power in water.


Every vision needs first steps to get it going. I suggest that cooperative projects between Israeli and Korean Universities would be such a step.  We could then develop this into a mutual research institute in clean-tech – the “Israel-Korea Institute of Technology” (IKIT).  Summer High School exchange programs could accompany these steps. Joint venture capital funds could also be established.

History maters!  How history molded the Jewish mentality and how it molded the Korean mentality has prepared both for a perfect synergy to face the challenges of the 21st century.