Background paper on South Korea

Korea is a developed OECD country and a young democracy with a relatively effective governance structure. It is often described as a very successful case of state-led economic development and praised for the successful transition from an authoritarian “developmental state” to a consolidated democracy since the 1980s. The Asian financial crisis that hit Korea in 1997 and the election of the first president coming from the opposition in the same year have been another critical juncture. Since then substantial institutional reforms have consolidated democracy, strengthened civil rights and improved the quality of governance. The country has a well-trained, meritocratic bureaucracy and a largely independent judiciary. Despite the substantial improvements in transparency, democratic accountability and prevention of corruption, many problems remain. Democratic behavior is still not deeply rooted in Korean society and is often undermined by entrenched hierarchical and authoritarian thinking. Korean society is divided into competing networks in which personal trust derives from regional origin and high school/university networks. These personal networks are grouped around powerful individuals and compete for influence, power, jobs and public resources. Democratic changes in governments have ensured that not a single group was able to completely monopolize power, but the competition of networks has prevented the emergence of a universalistic attitude oriented towards the common good. In sum, the distribution of resources is on the border between competitive particularism and ethical universalism with a general positive tendency since the beginning of democratization.

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