For the latest updates on the key economic responses from governments to address the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, please consult the IMF's policy tracking platform Policy Responses to COVID-19.
Ranking 12th among the world's largest economic powers and 4th in Asia in 2023, South Korea is famous for its spectacular rise from one of the poorest countries in the world to a developed, high-income country in just one generation. During the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, the country maintained a stable economy and even experienced economic growth during the peak of the crisis. However, the South Korean economy went into its worst year growth period in more than half a century in 2020, battered by China's economic slowdown and uncertainties over the trade war between Beijing and Washington, and the global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stagnant investment and the failure to spill the boom of chip sector over into other industries already limited economic growth to an estimated 2.2% in 2019, before declining to -0.9% in 2020 and bouncing back at 4.1% in 2021 and 2.6% in 2022. According to the IMF's October 2022 forecast, GDP growth is expected to reach 2% in 2023.
Thanks to stimulus packages, public ﬁnances remain stable in 2021 and 2022. The budget surplus decreased from 0.5% of GDP in 2019 to -1.5% in 2020 but came back to +0.5% of GDP in 2021 and -1.6% in 2022. The IMF expects the fiscal deficit will remain at +0.3% in 2023 and +0.4% in 2024. Public debt grew to an estimated 51.3% of GDP in 2021 and 54.1% in 2022 and is expected to rise in the coming years at 54.4% in 2023 and 55.2% in 2024 (IMF, October 2022). Inflation is projected to stand at 3.8% in 2023, compared to 5.5% in 2022 and 2.5% in 2021. Since 2020 the government has worked hard to boost the economy through expansionary fiscal spending, and as a result employment data showed an improvement in terms of both the number of jobs and employment status. Framework measures for industrial innovation have been completed, which cover the plans to restructure manufacturing and services, develop the new core industries of data, networks and AI, and promote the three new promising industries of a system on a chip, biohealth and future cars. The government also worked for a second venture boom, strong employment support and social safety nets, which led to improved distribution indicators, and supplementary measures to help the 52 hour workweek run smoothly. However, the private sector has not yet picked up, as well as the country's growth potential.
For 2022, South Korean exports increased 6.1% while imports rose 18.9%. Nevertheless,The trade shortfall was $4.7 billion in December, resulting in the first annual deficit since the global financial crisis as elevated oil prices battered many trade-dependent nations. South Korea’s exports continued to decline early in 2023 in a sign of cooling global demand as higher interest rates weigh on consumption (Bloomberg, 2023).
South Korea has experienced remarkable success in combining rapid economic growth with significant reductions in poverty. Income per capita increased from USD 100 in 1963 to more than USD 42 500 in 2022 (IMF, October 2022). Although the unemployment rate was estimated very low in 2022 at 3% (IMF, 2023) the number of irregular workers is very high, social inequalities are deepening and social ties are deteriorating. The government is struggling to turn employment around, even after using USD 400 million extra budget mainly for job-creation projects and is urging pension funds to invest more in small-cap Kosdaq stocks to boost innovation. In the medium and longer terms, South Korea will spend more on preparing measures to tackle the low birth rate, elderly poverty and low employment among women. The IMF expects however the unemployment rate to remain slightly affected by the negative economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate being currently estimated to stay at 3.4% in 2023.
South Korea has recovered well from the pandemic, a testament to its strong economic fundamentals and appropriate policy responses. Economic output has surpassed pre-crisis levels despite multiple waves of infection. The effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and related sanctions have exacerbated concerns about stagflation risks. Specifically, the increase in commodity prices, particularly of energy, has been fueling inflationary pressures even as the adverse impact of the war on trading partners and recent developments in China could significantly weigh on economic activity in Korea (IMF, 2023). In 2023, the country’s most immediate challenge will be to navigate the volatile international context, facing steep challenges against a backdrop of the persistent health and economic overhang of a global pandemic and a war in Europe, a cost-of-living crisis caused by persistent and broadening inflation pressures, and the slowdown in China.
|Main Indicators||2020||2021||2022 (E)||2023 (E)||2024 (E)|
|GDP (billions USD)||1,644.68||1,810.97||1,665.25||1,721.91||1,792.73|
|GDP (Constant Prices, Annual % Change)||-0.7||4.1||2.6||1.5||2.4|
|GDP per Capita (USD)||31,728||34,998||32,250||33,393||34,807|
|General Government Balance (in % of GDP)||-1.5||0.1||-0.9||0.2||-0.1|
|General Government Gross Debt (in % of GDP)||48.7||51.3||54.3||55.3||55.9|
|Inflation Rate (%)||0.5||2.5||5.1||3.5||2.3|
|Unemployment Rate (% of the Labour Force)||3.9||3.7||2.9||3.7||3.7|
|Current Account (billions USD)||75.90||85.23||29.83||37.11||50.41|
|Current Account (in % of GDP)||4.6||4.7||1.8||2.2||2.8|
Source: IMF – World Economic Outlook Database, Latest data available.
Note : (E) Estimated data
South Korea has experienced one of the largest economic transformations of the past 60 years. Given its limited geographical size, insufficient natural resources and population size (a labour force of 28.4 million people out of its 51.28 million population), the country has devoted special attention to technology development and innovation to promote growth, growing from a predominantly rural, agricultural nation into an urban, industrialized country. Industry represented 32.4% of the GDP and employed 25% of the workforce in 2022 (World Bank, 2023). The main industries include textile, steel, car manufacturing, shipbuilding and electronics. South Korea is the world's largest producer of semiconductors.
The agricultural sector in South Korea only makes a negligible contribution to the country's GDP (1.8%) and employed only 4.8% of the active population in 2021 (World Bank, 2023). Rice is the main agricultural crop; barley, wheat, corn, soybeans and sorghum are extensively cultivated. The sector also includes large-scale livestock farming. Less than one-fourth of the land is cultivated. South Korea's mineral resources are limited to gold and silver.
The service sector is the largest and fastest economic sector, accounting for 57% of GDP and employing 70.2% of the active population (World Bank, 2023), especially department stores, store chains and supermarkets. Tourism was one of the fast-growing sectors, with a rise of 14% in 2019 according to Korean Tourism Organization, although the number of Chinese tourists dropped drastically in the last years because of Beijing's travel ban, which has not been fully lifted. Since 2020 the country is waiting for the world's borders to open again to international travel.
Global economic activity is experiencing a broad-based and sharper-than-expected slowdown, with inflation higher than seen in several decades. The cost-of-living crisis, tightening financial conditions in most regions, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the lingering COVID-19 pandemic all weigh heavily on the outlook. Global growth is forecast to slow from 6.0 percent in 2021 to 3.2 percent in 2022 and 2.7 percent in 2023, the weakest growth profile since 2001 except for the global financial crisis and the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Global inflation is forecast to rise from 4.7 percent in 2021 to 8.8 percent in 2022 but to decline to 6.5 percent in 2023 and to 4.1 percent by 2024 (International Monetary Fund - IMF, 2023). The impact of the 2022 world events appears to have affected both sides of most sectors and markets in this country for the third year in a row - demand disruptions having run up against supply problems - making the short-term outlook uncertain for agriculture, industry and service sectors.
|Breakdown of Economic Activity By Sector||Agriculture||Industry||Services|
|Employment By Sector (in % of Total Employment)||5.1||24.6||70.3|
|Value Added (in % of GDP)||1.8||32.4||57.0|
|Value Added (Annual % Change)||3.8||5.1||3.8|
Source: World Bank, Latest data available.
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The Economic freedom index measure ten components of economic freedom, grouped into four broad categories or pillars of economic freedom: Rule of Law (property rights, freedom from corruption); Limited Government (fiscal freedom, government spending); Regulatory Efficiency (business freedom, labour freedom, monetary freedom); and Open Markets (trade freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom). Each of the freedoms within these four broad categories is individually scored on a scale of 0 to 100. A country’s overall economic freedom score is a simple average of its scores on the 10 individual freedoms.
The business rankings model measures the quality or attractiveness of the business environment in the 82 countries covered by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Country Forecast reports. It examines ten separate criteria or categories, covering the political environment, the macroeconomic environment, market opportunities, policy towards free enterprise and competition, policy towards foreign investment, foreign trade and exchange controls, taxes, financing, the labour market and infrastructure.
Under the newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea is adapting to a rapidly changing geopolitical environment by seeking to elevate its international profile and improve relations with key allies. But sustaining this important strategic shift will require its deeper institutionalization, both at home and in the US and Japan. More broadly, South Korea also will need to strengthen its participation in multilateral institutions and networks, so that it can work with other countries to provide international public goods, mitigate supply-chain problems, and address other global issues.
Yoon Suk-yeol, will face a period of policy gridlock in 2023 as a result of his narrow electoral support base, the ongoing power struggles within the ruling People Power Party, the opposition Minjoo Party's control of parliament and growing public discontent with the rising cost of living and divisive labour and gender policies. South Korea’s parliament approved a 2023 budget that reflects a more rigorous fiscal approach from the new government as it tries to position the nation to address rising economic risks. It represents efforts by officials under new President Yoon Suk Yeol to reduce South Korea’s debt dependence and wean the economy off pandemic-era stimulus. A relaxation of Covid restrictions has allowed businesses to bounce back with less government support. That’s giving policy makers a chance to pivot to issues ranging from an ageing population to slowing economic growth and mounting geopolitical uncertainty.
Inter-Korean tensions will intensify as South Korea deepens defence co-operation with the US while North Korea seeks to further its development of nuclear weapons. South Korea will refrain from siding with the US in its rivalry with China, to protect its own economic interests.
One problem for President Yoon Suk-yeol, whose margin of victory over his more left-wing opponent was just 0.74% in 2022, is the level of domestic political support for a major foreign-policy shift. Given South Korea’s winner-takes-all political system, in which presidents are limited to a single five-year term, many worry that any major foreign-policy changes could be summarily reversed as soon as 2027. With the next presidential election not due until then, Yoon has time to secure such a consensus if he works hard at it.
- The Democratic (Minjo) Party : progressive
- People Power Party or PPP (formerly Liberty Korea Party): right-wing
- Justice Party: centre-left; organised around progressivism
The world rankings, published annually, measures violations of press freedom worldwide. It reflects the degree of freedom enjoyed by journalists, the media and digital citizens of each country and the means used by states to respect and uphold this freedom. Finally, a note and a position are assigned to each country. To compile this index, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) prepared a questionnaire incorporating the main criteria (44 in total) to assess the situation of press freedom in a given country. This questionnaire was sent to partner organisations,150 RWB correspondents, journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists. It includes every kind of direct attacks against journalists and digital citizens (murders, imprisonment, assault, threats, etc.) or against the media (censorship, confiscation, searches and harassment etc.).
The Indicator of Political Freedom provides an annual evaluation of the state of freedom in a country as experienced by individuals. The survey measures freedom according to two broad categories: political rights and civil liberties. The ratings process is based on a checklist of 10 political rights questions (on Electoral Process, Political Pluralism and Participation, Functioning of Government) and 15 civil liberties questions (on Freedom of Expression, Belief, Associational and Organizational Rights, Rule of Law, Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights). Scores are awarded to each of these questions on a scale of 0 to 4, where a score of 0 represents the smallest degree and 4 the greatest degree of rights or liberties present. The total score awarded to the political rights and civil liberties checklist determines the political rights and civil liberties rating. Each rating of 1 through 7, with 1 representing the highest and 7 the lowest level of freedom, corresponds to a range of total scores.
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Latest Update: September 2023