South Korea


Policy Performance


Economic Policies

Driven by a renewed focus on growth, South Korea falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 13) with regard to economic policy. Its score on this measure is unchanged relative to 2014.

Growth rates have been moderate to strong, boosted by fiscal stimulus and low interest rates, but have fallen short of government goals. Business regulation has been reduced, and the housing sector deregulated, prompting some to warn of a real-estate bubble.

Labor-market policies have helped keep unemployment rates very low. However, precarious employment remains a concern, and the employment rate is low by OECD standards.

Tax rates are low, but generate sufficient public revenues. Value-added taxes play an important budgetary role. A new tax policy encourages companies to invest or distribute profits. Despite occasional small deficits, surpluses have been common, and public debt is moderate. R&D support is strong.

Social Policies

Producing strong education and health systems, South Korea’s social policies fall into the upper-middle ranks (rank 17) in international comparison. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.1 point since 2014.

Education is a very high priority, absorbing considerable public and private spending. However, reformers have called for more analytical learning styles. While the universally available health care system is of high quality, overall spending on health is comparatively low.

Inequality is rising, and relative poverty remains a serious problem. Transfer payments remain minimal, doing little to prevent poverty. New policies aimed at helping women combine work and parenting have as yet had little overall effect. Birth rates are in decline despite women’s low labor-market participation rates.

A basic minimum pension for low-income elderly has been introduced. However, old-age poverty remains a serious problem. With immigration rates rising, migration and integration policies are becoming more liberal.

Environmental Policies

Lacking clear direction, South Korea’s environmental policies receive a relatively low overall ranking (rank 30) in international comparison. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.1 point relative to 2014.

The current government has abandoned its predecessor’s “green growth” concept, but has not presented an alternative agenda. Environmental problems are serious, particularly with regard to air quality, though much of this stems from Chinese sources.

A proposed vehicle-emissions tax has been delayed, while an emissions-trading program has not proved effective. Public transportation use is growing, but cars are still given planning priority. The government subsidizes energy use.

The country has seen the OECD’s largest increase in CO2 emissions since the 1990s, and is dramatically expanding nuclear-power use without having solved the waste-management issue. It cooperates actively within global environmental-protection regimes.



Quality of Democracy

A number of illiberal trends place South Korea in the bottom ranks (rank 37) with respect to democracy quality. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.1 point relative to 2014.

Political campaigns are very expensive, and party funding is not transparent. Major newspapers show conservative bias, but the Internet media sector is vibrant. The government has pressured broadcast networks to appoint presidential supporters as executives.

Many web pages are blocked by the government. While basic civil rights are generally protected, the use of national-security laws against government critics remains a concern, and labor unions have come under increasing government pressure. Gender inequality is a serious issue, particularly in the workplace.

The judiciary is professional and mostly independent of government influence. Worrisome exceptions include the Constitutional Court’s government-requested dissolution of an opposition political party, and the indictment of activists criticizing government policy. Corruption remains a major problem.



Executive Capacity

With a strong central executive, South Korea falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 18) with regard to executive capacity. Its score on this measure has fallen by 0.2 points since 2014.

The powerful presidential office dominates line ministries, with top-down decision-making having increased under the current administration. The president’s office also engages in significant strategic planning. Interministerial coordination outside direct presidential influence is sporadic and often informal. Ministerial compliance is strong.

Regulatory impact assessment is mandatory, but sometimes superficial or influenced by outside interests. Sustainability strategies have been in place since 2007, but the current administration has given a higher priority to growth.

The current government has an authoritarian style, and has deemphasized civil-society consultation. The administration has had difficulties passing and implementing policies. Municipalities have protested against an unfunded shift of welfare responsibilities to the local level.

Executive Accountability

Influenced by a highly personalized political system, South Korea’s executive accountability falls into the lower-middle ranks (rank 29) in international comparison. After gains last year, its score on this measure now represents a decline of 0.1 point relative to 2014.

Though often overburdened, parliamentarians have fairly large staffs and substantial oversight powers. The audit office is accountable to the president. A merger of government ombuds offices has made the institution less transparent.

Observers point to a declining level of policy knowledge, particularly among the young. The main TV programs produce a mix of infotainment and policy information, but some mass-media organizations distort reporting to serve government interests.

Political parties are largely controlled by powerful elite. Business organizations have had significant policy influence. Other civil-society organizations are often sophisticated, but have had little ability to affect policy under recent governments.
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