South Korea still at the crossroads? Dynamics in transformation from productive welfare regime to a welfare state regime

East Asian countries attracted a great deal of attention among social policy academics as the politics of welfare expansion was noticeable in many of them during economic crisis in the 1990s. South Korea has been the most critical example in the debate as the expansion of state welfare system looked most dramatic. Social welfare in East Asia was labelled a ‘productive welfare regime’ where social policy was subordinated to economic growth. Yet policy development in Korea has entailed a controversy over whether the country has departure from their productivist origin.

Sceptics indicated that the changes were limited and the purpose of some major measures still looked to enhance economic competitiveness. On the other hand, others saw these advances as paving the way to a solidaristic and universal form of social protection. Moreover, the political process was influenced by newly emerged cross-class collation between trade unions and middle-class-led movement rather than being dominated by pro-growth technocrats. Therefore, the Korean welfare regime was argued to be moving towards the liberal or conservative welfare regime, or even by some, social democratic welfare state.

However, these debates mainly happened during or immediately after the heyday of progressive politics through two consecutive governments under presidencies by leaders from democratization and human rights movements. This was almost a decade ago and Korea has experienced two consecutive conservative governments since. During this period, while the overall expansion of welfare has been limited, social policy debate become one of the central political agendas across major parties regardless of their ideological position.

Consequently, the debates over whether the welfare regime in Korea is departing from its productivist origins requires an up-to-date examination. While Korea ranks as the worst or close to the worst in many social indicators among OECD countries and has the lowest social spending, the welfare state is indicated in a nationwide survey conducted by a presidential committee of the current government as the future Koreans most desire when placed among other visions such as being a big economic power. Through the in-depth case study, political dynamics in this environment, and how they influence the trajectory of Korea welfare regime, are discussed. The Korean example could have meaningful implication for East Asian welfare regime debates but also offer a theoretical contribution to welfare state development in the 21st century.

>> Download the presentation slides


Kim, B. Y. 2016. “South Korea still at the crossroads? Dynamics in transformation from productive welfare regime to a welfare state regime” presented at the SPA Annual Conference & also at the 14th EASP Annual Conference with minor updates (2017)

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