At rank 26, South Korea’s status performance is slipping (-2 ranks relative to SGI 2009).
The quality of democracy has diminished further. Since taking office in early 2008, President Lee has sharply reversed the policies of his two left-wing predecessors. Critics claim that Lee suppresses the opposition, media and large parts of civil society.
Economic policy is largely successful, even though Korea’s performance chiefly rests on the invincible Chaebol, large business conglomerates. Governments, in particular conservative ones, have been reluctant in expanding the social security system.
Tensions with North Korea continue to pose severe security concerns.
At rank 29, South Korea’s quality of democracy fails to meet average OECD levels.
While elections are largely fair, the government occasionally infringes on media independence, and oligopolistic newspapers produce biased political reporting.
The suicide of former President Roh in 2009 amidst allegations of corruption raised questions about the independence of the judiciary. The National Security Law, which outlaws activities that could be interpreted as “benefitting or praising” North Korea remains in place.
Corruption persists as a major problem.
At rank 12, South Korea’s activist economic policy during the crisis helped push the country up five ranks relative to the SGI 2009.
President Lee’s business-friendly economic policy is centered on the ambitious “Korea 747” plan (7% growth in his term, raising per capita GDP to $40,000, and becoming the world’s 7th largest economy). The impact of the economic crisis was softened substantially through implementation of the OECD’s largest fiscal stimulus package relative to GDP.
Labor market policy has succeeded in keeping unemployment low, but problems remain, including a rise in precarious working conditions and irregular employment, and difficult career entry conditions for college graduates.
With the lowest tax burden on income in the OECD, Korea’s tax system is relatively effective. Budget policy is very sustainable.
South Korea’s rating on social affairs remains comparatively low (rank 24).
The health care system is relatively efficient, with the country showing the OECD’s highest increase in life expectancy since 1960.
Family- and group-based social transfers provide some compensation for limitations in the state-run welfare system. The gap between rich and poor has grown, however. Alarmed by a dramatic drop in birth rates, combined with a rapidly aging society, revisions to family policy are being discussed.
Migrants’ access to permanent residency and dual citizenship status has recently been improved, as have voting rights in local elections. However, cultural discrimination against international couples and the exploitation of foreign blue-collar workers remain problems.
Continued tensions with North Korea dominate South Korea’s security challenges. The country spends considerable amounts on defense and relies on security assistance from its cooperation partners, the USA and Japan, in balancing the threat from the north.
Relations between the two Korean states have deteriorated since the Lee administration reversed the “sunshine” policy pursued by preceding left-wing governments.
Domestic security is provided in most areas. South Korea has the lowest rate of burglaries and robberies in the OECD, though auto-related fatalities are high.
At rank 11, sustainable use of resources is one of South Korea’s relative strengths.
The Lee administration can be credited for shifting attention to environmental issues. In practice, however, “green growth” has often been a label for large-scale industrial and infrastructure plans such as the controversial “Four Rivers Project.” CO2 emissions have increased more in South Korea than in any other OECD country since the 1990s.
Research and innovation policies are exemplary in the large enterprise sector, but small and medium-sized firms would benefit from more investment.
Education policy has improved slightly, but remains a controversial issue. Learning outcomes are very good, as PISA results show. However, the education system has been criticized for failing to develop students’ analytical and debating skills.