South Korea


Sustainable Policies


Economic Policies

With the government focusing on job creation and welfare expansion, South Korea falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 14) with regard to economic policy. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.1 point relative to 2014.

While growth rates have been moderate and stable in recent years, the rate declined to 2.7% in 2018. Current account surpluses have been high. The central bank supported the fiscal expansion with interest-rate cuts. The minimum wage has increased by nearly 11%, but the government has promised to limit future increases.

General unemployment rates remain very low and stable at just 3.1%, but the youth unemployment rate is considerably higher. The Moon government has sought to reduce share of non-regular jobs; however, the number of non-regular workers in fact increased in 2019, hitting a record of 36% of all salaried workers.

Tax rates are low. The overall tax base is narrow, and redistributive effects are weak. The government ran a primary surplus of almost 2% of GDP during the review period. Public debt is moderate and sustainable at the national level, but an increasing number of local governments and public enterprises are struggling due to insufficient revenues. R&D expenditures are very substantial.

Social Policies

With efforts to expand the welfare state showing little immediate effect, South Korea’s social policies fall into the middle ranks (rank 23) 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. A government effort to chance a university entrance system deemed unfair was launched without public discussion, leading to criticism.
Overall spending on health is comparatively low, but a new healthcare plan will substantially expand insurance coverage. The per capita number of doctors and nurses is low.

Inequality is rising despite government efforts to expand the welfare system, and relative poverty remains a serious problem. Higher social payments and minimum wages have not as yet significantly reduced the number of poor. Paternal leave and childcare availability has been expanded; nonetheless, there are numerous disincentives to women entering the workforce, and birth rates are extremely low.

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. The number of resident foreigners and undocumented foreign workers has climbed rapidly in recent years. The country only rarely grants full refugee status.

Environmental Policies

Lacking ambition and cohesion, South Korea’s environmental policies fall into the bottom ranks (rank 35) in international comparison. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.2 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. There is as yet no comprehensive strategy for moving toward a carbon-neutral economy.

Current plans are to expand the share of renewables in energy production by 20%, and decrease emissions by 37% below the “business-as-usual” trend, 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. High-emissions cars will be blocked from entering Seoul’s city center, but this will affect less than 2% of vehicles. The country is the world’s second-largest investor in the global coal-finance market, following China.

Robust Democracy


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 27) with respect to democracy quality. Its score on this measure has increased by 1.1 point relative to 2014.

President’s Moon’s government has made considerable strides in areas from human rights to media freedom. Political debate in which diverging political opinions are respected is becoming more routine, though such debate is often personalized. Discrimination against women, migrants, LGBT people and North Korean defectors remains a major problem.

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, with most candidate funding coming from private donations or “investments,” but monitoring systems and penalties are becoming more effective.

Considerable strides have been made against public-sector corruption, with the two most recently serving presidents now in jail for bribery or corruption. A government plan to shift the power to investigate corruption among high officials to a new agency, with the aim of reducing political interference, sparked considerable controversy.

Good Governance


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 has declined by 0.1 point 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 did its predecessor, with a more open communication style. Ministries occasionally issue mutually contradictory statements, but rarely contradict the presidential office.

Implementation effectiveness has fallen short of initial ambitious goals, in part due to Moon’s lack of a parliamentary majority. The president is strongly committed to decentralization, in part by providing local governments with more funding. Regulatory enforcement is often biased toward big business.

Executive Accountability

Though its years of scandal and presidential impeachment are now behind it, South Korea still falls into the lower-middle ranks (rank 29) with regard to executive accountability. Its score on this measure represents an improvement of 0.2 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. Traditional media provide superficial political coverage, propagating extreme partisan content as a means of securing subscribers and viewers.

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 groups have provided a pool of experts for the Moon administration, though this has to some extent undermined their ability to criticize the government.
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