Korea: a case study

Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, takes up office today.  This is a big step forward for the country, and for the wider political scene.   I’ve never been to Korea, but I’ve been thinking of using it as a case study for the Paula Principle, for the folllowing reasons.

Koreans have made extraordinarily rapid educational progress over the past two decades.   15-20 years ago they were near the foot of the OECD league table on achievement at secondary school;  now they are at or around the top. It is a truly remarkable transformation. Their tertiary system has expanded in consequence, very rapidly, so that there are now large numbers of graduates emerging (with a corresponding graduate employment problem). If you compare the qualifications of 25-34 year olds with those of 45-54 year olds, the gap in Korea is bigger than in any other country – meaning that they have made more rapid progress than anywhere else with the education of their young people.

Probably the biggest factor in this transformation has been Korean willingness to invest time and money, by the state but also privately. Korean students spend an extraordinary amount of time studying out of school. Their ratio of private to public spending on education is unusually high.

Within this general trend, young Korean women have made very rapid strides. As elsewhere, they now do better than their male peers. The overall gender pay gap in Korea is 39% – the highest of all OECD countries, and higher by 10% than Japan, which is the nearest one. It is much lower for the younger age groups, signalling that women’s educational success is having some effect. But the key question is whether the closing of the gap will be sustained as Korean women attempt to move on in their careers. Women’s employment rates are lower there than in most countries.

So Korea presents a good test case for the PP: will the exceptionally rapid transformation of the educational levels of their young women change their unusually disadvantaged employment position? This will depend heavily on major change in cultural attitudes as well as in the labour market. If this does not happen, Park Geun-hye’s achievement may be a rather lonely one.

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