South Korea’s Feminine Future

SEOUL – Over the last half-century, South Korea has made considerable economic progress, with per capita income increasing from a mere $80 dollars in 1960 to more than $22,000 last year. But its potential for sustained growth is faltering, owing to the imminent decline of its working-age population – projected to fall by 25% by 2050 – and rising competition from China and other emerging economies. In order to improve its prospects, South Korea must pursue economic reform and restructuring, with an emphasis on maximizing its human-capital resources – especially women.

South Korea’s success over the last five decades owes much to the rapid growth of its well-educated labor force. From 1960 to 2010, the share of adults with a secondary education soared from 20% to an impressive 87%. By boosting productivity, increasing returns on investment, and facilitating technological adaption and innovation, South Korea’s abundance of well-educated workers has served as the foundation for its export-oriented development strategy.

But women remain underutilized, to the detriment of the entire economy. Indeed, any effective South Korean growth strategy must create more and better economic opportunities for women, in part by establishing more accommodating working environments and instituting a more diverse and flexible education system.

To its credit, South Korea has built a relatively gender-equal society. The gender gap in enrollment in both secondary and higher education is very small; and women’s access to elite positions in law, medicine, and the civil service has increased considerably in recent years. The country elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye, in 2012.