South Korea


Policy Performance


Economic Policies

With reforms taking on a new character, South Korea scores well (rank 10) with regard to economic policy. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.2 points relative to 2014.

Growth rates are high by OECD standards, but lower than in the past. The Moon government is seeking to reduce the country’s dependence on exports, and hopes to reform the country’s dominant business conglomerates (chaebol). Recent fiscal-stimulus efforts have focused on the creation of social-service jobs and improving the welfare system.

General unemployment rates remain very low and stable, but the youth unemployment rate is considerably higher. Precarious employment remains a concern, and the new administration has put a top priority on reducing the share of irregular jobs.

Tax rates are low. The Moon administration is seeking to raise rates for high-income individuals and companies. Public debt is moderate but rising. R&D expenditure remain substantial, with the Moon government seeking to unify previously fragmented policies in the area.

Social Policies

Producing strong education and health systems, South Korea’s social policies fall into the upper-middle ranks (rank 18) in international comparison. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.2 points since 2014.

Education outcomes are good, and tertiary enrollment rates are high. The new administration has promised to address inequality issues by turning expensive “elite” schools into free regular schools. While the universally available health care system is of high quality, overall spending on health is comparatively low. Government-funded coverage is being expanded.

Inequality is rising, and relative poverty remains a serious problem. Transfer payments do little to prevent poverty. Women face considerable disincentives to joining the work force, and policies aimed at helping women combine work and parenting have had little overall effect.

However, old-age poverty is a major problem. The government is raising the basic pension for low-income seniors, and a more general pension reform is on the agenda. Though immigration rates are rising, the country’s cultural, educational and social policies still fail to address the role of migrants in Korea systematically.

Environmental Policies

Lacking clear direction, South Korea’s environmental policies fall into the bottom ranks (rank 36) in international comparison. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.3 points relative to 2014.

The county remains an unsustainable growth-first and car-first society. Environmental problems are serious, particularly with regard to air quality, though much of this stems from Chinese sources. Public transportation is improving especially in Seoul, but most urban development projects continue to prioritize automobiles.

The country is the fifth-largest producer of nuclear energy in the world. As a candidate, President Moon pledged to phase out coal and nuclear, but has since announced he would resume construction on two nuclear reactors, though promising they would be the last constructed.

The country signed the Paris climate agreement in 2016. It has launched several emissions reductions programs, including an emissions-trading system, incentives for electric vehicles, and support for public transportation. It has nevertheless fallen behind with regard to climate-protection obligations.



Quality of Democracy

Fresh from a turnaround prompted by protests and presidential impeachment, South Korea scores relatively poorly in international comparison (rank 31) with respect to democracy quality. Its score on this measure has increased by 0.6 points relative to 2014.

Massive protests, ultimately followed by the impeachment of President Park on corruption charges, fundamentally transformed the direction of Korea’s society. The scandal revealed systematic collusion between the government and big business groups, but also showed the power of public pressure to overcome government influence and networks of control.

President Moon has substantially reduced efforts to influence the media, and improved access to information. Civil rights conditions are expected to improve considerably. Moon has promised to improve gender equality, and started by appointing a record number of women as ministers. Migrants, LGTBQ people and North Korean defectors continue to face discrimination.

Political campaigns are very expensive, and with most candidate funding coming from private donations or “investments.” Infractions of the election-financing law are common, but carry little stigma. Major newspapers show conservative bias, but were forced to cover Moon’s campaign to an unusual degree due to the public protests.



Executive Capacity

Showing considerable gains with the change in government, South Korea falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 15) with regard to executive capacity. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.1 point since 2014.

The powerful presidential office dominates line ministries. The president’s office has significant strategic-planning capacities, with a new planning committee that includes key departments. Ministerial compliance is strong, enforced by presidential pressure, and efforts are being made to improve interministerial coordination.

Sustainability strategies have been in place since 2007, but are historically ignored for pet presidential projects. Moon has promised to highlight environmental sustainability. The new administration consults far more deeply with societal actors than its predecessor, and has pursued a far more open communication style.

Despite lacking a parliamentary majority, Moon’s record in achieving goals was strong in the administration’s early days. The new president is strongly committed to decentralization, in part by providing local governments with more funding. He has also proposed constitutional change redistributing power to the local level.

Executive Accountability

With scandal and presidential impeachment now behind it, South Korea falls into the lower-middle ranks (rank 23) with regard to executive accountability. Its score on this measure represents an improvement of 0.3 points relative to 2014.

Public activism surged to high levels as millions of Koreans participated in the protests that led to President Park’s impeachment. However, many remain poorly informed about actual policy details. Some mass-media outlets produce biased reports, but the media played a key role in uncovering the Park scandals.

Though often overburdened, parliamentarians have fairly large staffs and substantial oversight powers. The audit office is accountable to the president, with calls outstanding to make it independent or subject to the legislature instead. A civil-rights commission serves some ombuds role, and Moon has promised to make it more independent.

Political parties used a variety of means to select their 2017 nominee. 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. Civil society played a key role in mobilizing the massive street protests, and provided a pool of experts for the new administration.
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