South Korea


Policy Performance


Economic Policies

With the new administration focusing on labor-market transformation, South Korea falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 15) with regard to economic policy. Its score on this measure is unchanged relative to 2014.

Growth rates have been moderate but stable in recent years. Current account surpluses have been high. The central bank has been cautious in raising interest rates.

General unemployment rates remain very low and stable, but the youth unemployment rate is considerably higher. The Moon government has placed a high priority on reducing the share of irregular jobs, starting by transferring irregular public-sector employees into permanent employment. The minimum wage has been increased, and a new rule caps allowable weekly working hours.

Tax rates are low. The income-tax rate for those with high incomes has increased, but the overall tax base is narrow. Public debt is moderate but rising despite health primary budget surpluses. R&D expenditure remains substantial, with the Moon government making significant investments in key technologies.

Social Policies

Producing strong education and health systems, South Korea’s social policies fall into the middle ranks (rank 22) in international comparison. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.1 point since 2014.

Education outcomes are good, and tertiary enrollment rates are high. Numerous curriculum-reform efforts have been unable to overcome the reliance on cramming and rote learning. While the universally available health care system is of high quality, overall spending on health is comparatively low. Co-payment levels are high, but a new safety net is being created for families facing high costs.

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.

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. Migration has become an increasingly controversial issue, with public resistance to accepting refugees from war-torn countries strong despite the small number of individuals involved.

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 0.4 points relative to 2014.

While environmental topics are gaining importance, the government clearly prioritizes economic growth over environmental concerns. As a candidate, President Moon pledged to phase out coal and nuclear energy, but has since backed away from ambitious timelines. Greenhouse gas emissions and air quality remain serious problems.

Current plans are to expand the share of renewables in energy production by 20% by 2030. Under current projections, the country’s emissions will be more than 150% above their 1990 levels by 2030, well above the target of 81%. The government has been quick to cave in to populist demands for low energy and fuel prices.

Problems with fine dust exposure are among the world’s worst. Plans are underway to build new apartments in Seoul’s green belt, and cars are still given the greatest transportation priority in most urban-development projects, despite ever-increasing traffic jams.



Quality of Democracy

Though the new government is taking a far more open approach than its predecessors, South Korea still falls into the lower-middle ranks (rank 28) with respect to democracy quality. Its score on this measure has increased by 1.0 point relative to 2014.

Following two conservative presidents, the last of whom was impeached for corruption, President’s Moon’s more liberal government has made considerable strides in areas from human rights to media freedom. Some concerns nonetheless remain, including a National Security Law that limits expression, and continuing de facto discrimination against migrants, LGTBQ people and North Korean defectors.

Moon has reduced government efforts to influence the media, though internet censorship remains widespread. Labor unions are still limited in their ability to engage in political activities. Political campaigns are very expensive, and with most candidate funding coming from private donations or “investments.” A proposed constitutional-reform referendum was rejected by the opposition party.

Considerable strides have been made against public-sector corruption, with the two most recently serving presidents now in jail for bribery or corruption. The Me Too has additionally brought many abuse-of-power cases to light. However, there has been less success in curbing influence peddling by big business groups.



Executive Capacity

With its strong executive stymied by an opposition-dominated parliament, South Korea falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 18) with regard to executive capacity. Its score on this measure is unchanged relative to its 2014 level.

The powerful presidential office dominates line ministries. The president’s office has significant strategic-planning capacities. Ministerial compliance is strong, enforced by presidential pressure. Though efforts are being made to improve interministerial coordination, cases of coordination failure remain common. Informal coordination plays an important role.

RIA procedures are mandatory, with quality having improved in recent years. Ex post evaluation is common, but its effects on policy revision are limited. The Moon administration consults far more deeply with societal actors than its predecessor, and has pursued a far more open communication style.

Implementation effectiveness has fallen short of initial ambitious goals, in part due to Moon’s lack of a parliamentary majority. 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. Regulatory enforcement is often biased toward big business.

Executive Accountability

Though scandal and presidential impeachment are now behind it, South Korea still falls into the lower-middle ranks (rank 27) with regard to executive accountability. Its score on this measure represents an improvement of 0.5 points relative to 2014.

The massive public protests that led to President Park’s impeachment revealed a high level of political information and interest among the public. However, many remain poorly informed about actual policy details. The major newspapers lean clearly to the political right, but the media played a key role in uncovering the Park scandals.

Though often overburdened, parliamentarians have fairly large staffs and substantial oversight powers. Government institutions have become more cooperative in response to parliamentary requests. The audit office is accountable to the president. A civil-rights commission serves an ombuds role, and the Personal Information Protection Commission addresses personal-data policies.

Parties are typically organized in a top-down fashion, often led by a few powerful individuals. Both business and labor groups have had influence under the Moon administration. Civil society played a key role in mobilizing the massive street protests that led to the last president’s impeachment, and have provided a pool of experts for the Moon administration.
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