South Korea


Policy Performance


Economic Policies

Driven by a renewed focus on growth, South Korea scores well (rank 10) with regard to economic policy. Its score on this measure is unchanged relative to 2014.

Growth rates are high by OECD standards, but lower than in the past, a danger for an economy reliant on expansion to solve social problems. With interest rates at a record low, a large stimulus package was passed in 2016. Pressure is rising to reform major conglomerate-dominated industries.

General unemployment rates remain very low and stable, but the youth unemployment rate has risen. Precarious employment remains a concern, and a new employment law allowing companies to lay off underperforming workers drew strong labor opposition.

Tax rates are low, but debate over the need to rebalance tax burdens has intensified. Equity is the system’s primary weakness. Public debt is moderate but rising. Some municipalities have pursued expanded welfare policies that were strongly opposed, and in some cases blocked, by the Park government. R&D expenditure remain substantial.

Social Policies

Producing strong education and health systems, South Korea’s social policies fall into the middle ranks (rank 20) in international comparison. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.1 point since 2014.

Though education is a very high priority, the strong role played by parental funding raises inequity concerns. The introduction of a new state-issued history textbook is likely to be reversed by the new government. 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. Women face considerable cultural and economic disincentives to joining the work force, and policies aimed at helping women combine work and parenting have had little overall effect. Birth rates have shown dramatic declines.

A basic minimum pension for low-income elderly has been introduced, and businesses are gradually being required to provide retirement pensions. 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 fall into the bottom ranks (rank 37) in international comparison. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.4 points relative to 2014.

The Park government abandoned its predecessor’s “green growth” concept, but failed to present 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 was delayed, while an emissions-trading program has not proved effective. Public transportation use is growing, but cars are still given planning priority. A progressive use-more, pay-more electricity fee system helps restrain household use, but does not apply to companies.

The country signed the Paris climate agreement in 2016. It is one of the few states planning to expand the use of nuclear power. It cooperates actively within global environmental-protection regimes.



Quality of Democracy

A number of illiberal trends place South Korea in the bottom ranks (rank 36) 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 with most candidate funding coming from private donations or “investments.” Major newspapers show conservative bias, but the Internet media sector is vibrant. The Park government pressured broadcast networks to appoint presidential supporters as executives.

Many web pages are blocked by the government. Basic civil rights are generally protected despite some deterioration over time. The use of national-security laws against government critics remains a concern, and labor unions have come under increasing government pressure. Police overreaction to protests has become a problem. Gender inequality is a serious issue, particularly in the workplace.

Informal decision-making processes based on personal networks undermined the rule of law and government predictability under President Park. These ultimately produced a corruption scandal that led to the president’s impeachment.



Executive Capacity

Despite the scandals that ultimately toppled the government, South Korea falls into the middle ranks (rank 21) with regard to executive capacity. Its score on this measure has fallen by 0.4 points since 2014.

The powerful presidential office dominates line ministries, with the Park administration having engaged in top-down decision-making that lacked effective consultation or coordination. The president’s office has significant strategic-planning capacities, but goals under Park remained vague. Ministerial compliance is strong, enforced by presidential pressure.

Sustainability strategies have been in place since 2007, but the deregulation-focused Park administration gave a higher priority to growth. Repeated inability to cope with crises exposed significant monitoring flaws. Public communication of vital decisions was often too abrupt to be effective.

Following the loss of the ruling party’s parliamentary majority, and subsequent presidential scandals, the administration’s ability to pass new legislation plummeted. However, implementation was weak even beforehand. The corruption scandals undermined trust in formal institutions, culminating in Park’s impeachment.

Executive Accountability

With its political system rocked by scandal, South Korea’s executive accountability scores relatively poorly (rank 30) in international comparison. Its score on this measure represents an improvement of 0.2 points relative to 2014.

Voting-participation rates rose in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Activism afterward surged once the scope of political scandals became evident, with large protests calling for the president’s resignation. The main TV stations produce a mix of infotainment and policy information, but some mass-media organizations distort reporting to serve government interests.

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.

Political parties are largely controlled by powerful elites. Business organizations have had significant policy influence, but the biggest business lobby group has been badly tainted by its role in the influence-peddling scandals. Other civil-society organizations are often sophisticated, but have had little ability to affect policy under recent governments.
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