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All Eyes on South Korea

Now that the South Korean blockbuster Parasite has taken home the Oscar for Best Picture, many around the world are eagerly searching for more examples of South Korean coolness. They should look to the South Korean economy, which offers valuable lessons for achieving sustainable, inclusive growth.

LONDON – South Korea is all the rage these days. Earlier this month, Parasite, from the South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Having read the reviews and seen the film a few days earlier, I was not surprised. Still, for the uninitiated, it is worth noting that this was the first time that a foreign-language film took home the top Oscar. Now, many around the world are eagerly searching for more examples of South Korean coolness – from K-pop to cutting-edge fashion designers.

One usually doesn’t associate economics with coolness. Nonetheless, I have long pointed to South Korea as one of the most interesting economic case studies to appear in my professional lifetime. No other so-called “emerging economy” has matched its success over the past 40 years. Home to 50 million people, South Korea has experienced faster income growth than any other similar-sized country. In terms of per capita GDP, South Korea has gone from being close to most Sub-Saharan African countries to enjoying a standard of living similar to that of Spain.

To be sure, Parasite tells a story of Seoul’s haves and have-nots, and offers a scathing critique of inequality in contemporary South Korea. And yet, one of the notable components of South Korea’s success is the relatively low variability in its income growth compared to many other countries that have reached high-income status. Its Gini coefficient (a standard measure of inequality) indicates a more egalitarian income distribution than that of the United States and many European countries.