This paper unpacks the origins of the Korean developmental state’s formation (1960s-1970s) by studying the key group of first-generation Korean scientists and engineers returning from abroad who joined the Korean Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), established in 1966, that set the foundation for Korean science and technology development and the subsequent export-led industrialization drive.
A study of this group and their relationship with the state bureaucracy addresses a gap in the literature. Conventional wisdom attributes the formation of the Korean developmental state to historical conjunctures such as post-war geopolitics, land reform, and even the distinct forms of Japanese colonial rule. Another position emphasizes indigenous factors such as the role of developmental will and nationalism, and the great man thesis is invoked. For example, Park Chung Hee’s strong leadership and his experience serving in the Japanese military shaped the specific direction of Korean heavy industrialization and development. Yet, one still does not know much about the micro foundations of the state and how certain policy directions rather than others were chosen.
Through a collective history (including oral interviews, memoirs, and various government documents) of the key engineers and economists who helped to draft the heavy industrialization programs and science and technology development in the 1960s and 1970s, this paper illustrates how their world views, life histories (including their overseas connections), and relationships with the bureaucracy and President Park helped to shape the specific patterns of Korean industrial development.