Economy - overview: South Korea over the past four decades has demonstrated incredible economic growth and global integration to become a high-tech industrialized economy. In the 1960s, GDP per capita was comparable with levels in the poorer countries of Africa and Asia. In 2004, South Korea joined the trillion-dollar club of world economies.
A system of close government and business ties, including directed credit and import restrictions, initially made this success possible. The government promoted the import of raw materials and technology at the expense of consumer goods and encouraged savings and investment over consumption.
The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 exposed longstanding weaknesses in South Korea's development model, including high debt/equity ratios and massive short-term foreign borrowing. GDP plunged by 7% in 1998, and then recovered by 9% in 1999-2000. South Korea adopted numerous economic reforms following the crisis, including greater openness to foreign investment and imports. Growth moderated to about 4% annually between 2003 and 2007.
South Korea's export-focused economy was hit hard by the 2008 global economic downturn, but quickly rebounded in subsequent years, reaching over 6% growth in 2010. The US-Korea Free Trade Agreement was ratified by both governments in 2011 and went into effect in March 2012. Between 2012 and 2016, the economy experienced slow growth – 2%-3% per year - due to sluggish domestic consumption, a drop in foreign demand for South Korean exports, increased competition from regional rivals such as China and Japan, and declining investment. The administration in 2016 faced the challenge of balancing heavy reliance on exports with domestic restructuring efforts in the country’s shipbuilding and shipping industries.
The South Korean economy's short-term challenges include a potential loss of consumer confidence due to issues with its mobile phone industry, as well as uncertainty stemming from a tumultuous domestic political situation. In the long-term, South Korea must deal with a rapidly aging population, inflexible labor market, dominance of large conglomerates (chaebols), and the heavy reliance on exports, which comprise more than 40% of GDP. South Korea’s low overall unemployment rate masks problems with high youth unemployment, low worker productivity, high labor underutilization, and low female participation in the workforce. The government has tried to implement structural reforms, but continues to face significant headwind from vested interests. Finally, the country could eventually face an unprecedented financial burden in the event the unification of the Korean Peninsula were to occur.
Definition: This entry briefly describes the type of economy, including the degree of market orientation, the level of economic development, the most important natural resources, and the unique areas of specialization. It also characterizes major economic events and policy changes in the most recent 12 months and may include a statement about one or two key future macroeconomic trends.
Source: CIA World Factbook - This page was last updated on July 9, 2017