The Government Role in Economic Development

South Korea Table of Contents

In 1961 General Park Chung Hee overthrew the popularly elected regime of Prime Minister Chang Myon. A nationalist, Park wanted to transform South Korea from a backward agricultural nation into a modern industrial nation that would provide a decent way of life for its citizens while at the same time defending itself from outside aggression. Lacking the antiJapanese nationalist credentials of Syngman Rhee, for example, Park sought both legitimacy for his regime and greater independence for South Korea in a vigorous program of economic development that would transform the country from an agricultural backwater into a modern industrial nation.

Park's government was the beneficiary of the Syngman Rhee administration's decision to use foreign aid from the United States during the 1950s to build an infrastructure that included a nationwide network of primary and secondary schools, modern roads, and a modern communications network. The result was that by 1961, South Korea had a well-educated young work force and a modern infrastructure that provided Park with a solid foundation for economic growth.

The Park administration decided that the central government must play the key role in economic development because no other South Korean institution had the capacity or resources to direct such drastic change in a short time. The resulting economic system incorporated elements of both state capitalism and free enterprise. The economy was dominated by a group of chaebol, large private conglomerates, and also was supported by a significant number of public corporations in such areas as iron and steel, utilities, communications, fertilizers, chemicals, and other heavy industries. The government guided private industry through a series of export and production targets utilizing the control of credit, informal means of pressure and persuasion, and traditional monetary and fiscal policies.

The government hoped to take advantage of existing technology to become competitive in areas where other advanced industrial nations had already achieved success. Seoul presumed that the well-educated and highly motivated work force would produce lowcost , high-quality goods that would find ready markets in the United States and the rest of the industrial world. Profits generated from the sale of exports would be used to further expand capital, provide new jobs, and eventually pay off loans.

In 1961 Park extended government control over business by nationalizing the banks and merging the agricultural cooperative movement with the agricultural bank. The government's direct control over all institutional credit further extended Park's command over the business community. The Economic Planning Board was created in 1961 and became the nerve center of Park's plan to promote economic development. It was headed by a deputy prime minister and staffed by bureaucrats known for their high intellectual capability and educational background in business and economics. Beginning in the 1960s, the board allocated resources, directed the flow of credit, and formulated all of South Korea's economic plans. In the late 1980s, the power to allocate resources and credit was restored to the functional ministries. In 1990 the Economic Planning Board primarily was charged with economic planning; it also coordinated and often directed the economic functions of other government ministries, including the Ministry of Finance. The board was complemented by the Korea Development Institute, an independent economic research organization funded by the government. Other government bodies directing the economy included the Office of the President, which included a senior secretary for economic affairs; the Ministry of Finance; the Ministry of Trade and Industry; the Ministry of Labor; and the Bank of Korea, which was controlled by the Ministry of Finance.

Park's first major goal, which was immediately successful, was to establish a self-reliant industrial economy independent of the massive waves of United States aid that had kept South Korea afloat during the Rhee years. Modernizing the economy and maintaining overall sustained growth were additional goals in the 1970s. Significant economic policies included strengthening key industries, increasing employment, and developing more effective management systems. Because South Korea was dependent on imports of raw materials, such as oil, a major government objective was to significantly increase the level of exports, which meant stressing greater international competitiveness and higher productivity. The early economic plans emphasized agriculture and infrastructure, the latter were closely tied to construction. Later, the emphasis shifted consecutively to light industry, electronics, and heavy and chemical industries. Using these strategies, an export-driven economy developed.

The government combined a policy of import substitution with the export-led approach. Policy planners selected a group of strategic industries to back, including electronics, shipbuilding, and automobiles. New industries were nurtured by making the importation of such goods difficult. When the new industry was on its feet, the government worked to create good conditions for its export. Incentives for exports included a reduction of corporate and private income taxes for exporters, tariff exemptions for raw materials imported for export production, business tax exemptions, and accelerated depreciation allowances.

The export-led program took off in the 1960s; during the 1970s, some estimates indicate, Seoul had the world's most productive economy. The annual industrial production growth rate was about 25 percent; there was a fivefold increase in the GNP from 1965 to 1978. In the mid-1970s, exports increased by an average of 45 percent a year.

Industrial Policies

The major issue facing the Park regime in the early 1960s was the grinding poverty of the nation and the need for economic policies to overcome this poverty. A critical problem was raising funds to foster needed industrial development. Domestic savings were very low, and there was little available domestic capital. This obstacle was overcome by introducing foreign loans and inaugurating attractive domestic interest rates that enticed local capital into production. Of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, only South Korea financed its economic development with a dramatic build-up of foreign debt, debt that totaled US$46.8 billion in 1985, making it the fourth largest Third World debtor. Foreign corporate investments were primarily of Japanese origin.

As noted by consultant David I. Steinberg, Seoul administered a series of economic development plans. The government mobilized domestic capital by encouraging savings, determined what kinds of plants could be constructed with these funds, and reviewed the potential of the products for export. In this sense, the will of the government to undertake economic development played a crucial role; the role of the government, however, was not limited to such measures as mobilizing capital and allocating investments.

Steinberg also pointed out that Park's government restructured industries, such as defense and construction, sometimes to stimulate competition and other times to reduce or eliminate it. The Economic Planning Board established export targets that, if met, yielded additional government-subsidized credit and further access to the growing domestic market. Failure to meet such targets led to Seoul's withdrawal of credit.

Economic Plans

Economic programs were based on a series of five-year plans that began in 1962. The First Five-Year Economic Development Plan (1962-66) consisted of initial steps toward the building of a self-sufficient industrial structure that was neither consumption oriented nor overdependent on oil. Such areas as electrification, fertilizers, oil refining, synthetic fibers, and cement were emphasized. The Second Five-Year Economic Development Plan (1967- 71) stressed modernizing the industrial structure and rapidly building import-substitution industries, including steel, machinery, and chemical industries. The Third Five-Year Economic Development Plan (1972-76) achieved rapid progress in building an export-oriented structure by promoting heavy and chemical industries. Industries receiving particular attention included iron and steel, transport machinery, household electronics, shipbuilding, and petrochemicals. The developers of heavy and chemical industries sought to supply new industries with raw materials and capital goods and to reduce or even eliminate dependence on foreign capital. New (and critical) industries were to be constructed in the southern part of the peninsula, far from the border with North Korea, thus encouraging economic development and industrialization outside the Seoul area and providing new employment opportunities for residents of the less developed areas.

The Fourth Five-Year Economic Development Plan (1977-81) fostered the development of industries designed to compete effectively in the world's industrial export markets. These major strategic industries consisted of technology-intensive and skilled labor-intensive industries such as machinery, electronics, and shipbuilding. The plan stressed large heavy and chemical industries, such as iron and steel, petrochemicals, and nonferrous metal. As a result, heavy and chemical industries grew by an impressive 51.8 percent in 1981; their exports increased to 45.3 percent of total output. These developments can be ascribed to a favorable turn in the export performance of iron, steel, and shipbuilding, which occurred because high-quality, low-cost products could be produced in South Korea. By contrast, the heavy and chemical industries of advanced countries slumped during the late 1970s. In the machinery industries, investments were doubled in electric power generation, integrated machinery, diesel engines, and heavy construction equipment; the increase clearly showed that the industries benefited from the government's generous financial assistance program.

The late 1970s, however, witnessed worldwide recession, rising fuel costs, and growing inflation. South Korea's industrial structure became somewhat imbalanced, and the economy suffered from acute inflation because of an overemphasis on investment in heavy industry at a time when many potential customers were not in a position to buy heavy industrial goods.

The Fifth Five-Year Economic and Social Development Plan (1982-86) sought to shift the emphasis away from heavy and chemical industries, to technology-intensive industries, such as precision machinery, electronics (televisions, videocassette recorders, and semiconductor-related products), and information. More attention was to be devoted to building high-technology products in greater demand on the world market.

The Sixth Five-Year Economic and Social Development Plan (1987-91) to a large extent continued to emphasize the goals of the previous plan. The government intended to accelerate import liberalization and to remove various types of restrictions and nontariff barriers on imports. These moves were designed to mitigate adverse effects, such as monetary expansion and delays in industrial structural adjustment, which can arise because of a large surplus of funds. Seoul pledged to continue phasing out direct assistance to specific industries and instead to expand manpower training and research and development in all industries, especially the small and medium-sized firms that had not received much government attention previously. Seoul hoped to accelerate the development of science and technology by raising the ratio of research and development investment from 2.4 percent of the GNP to over 3 percent by 1991.

The goal of the Seventh Five-Year Economic and Social Development Plan (1992-96), formulated in 1989, was to develop high-technology fields, such as microelectronics, new materials, fine chemicals, bioengineering, optics, and aerospace. Government and industry would work together to build high-technology facilities in seven provincial cities to better balance the geographic distribution of industry throughout South Korea.

Revenues and Expenditures

The central government budget has generally expanded, both in real terms and as a proportion of real GNP, since the end of the Korean War, stabilizing at between 20 and 21 percent of GNP during most of the 1980s. Government spending in South Korea has been less than that for most countries in the world (excepting the other rapidly growing Asian economies of Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore). The share of government spending devoted to investment and other capital formation activities increased steadily through the periods of the first and second five-year plans (1962-1971), peaking at more than 41 percent of the budget in 1969. Since 1971 investment expenditures have remained at less than 30 percent of the budget, while the share of the budget occupied by direct government consumption and transfer payments has continued to increase, averaging more than 70 percent during the 1980s.

During the 1980s, the largest areas of government expenditure were economic services (including infrastructural projects and research and development), national defense, and education. Economic expenditures averaged several percentage points higher than defense expenditures, which remained stable at about 22 to 23 percent of the budget (about 6 percent of GNP) during the decade. In 1990 the government was studying plans to lower defense expenditures to 5 percent of GNP. Some observers noted a trend toward a slight increase in the portion of the budget devoted to social spending during the 1980s. In 1987 expenditures for social services--including health, housing, and welfare--were 16.4 percent of the budget, up from 13.9 percent in 1980, and slightly higher than 1987 government outlays for education.

The government revenue structure was virtually totally dependent on taxes. By the early 1980s, nearly two-thirds of tax money was collected in the form of indirect taxes. Revenues collected by the central government in 1987 rose to 19,270.3 billion won, up from 13.197.5 billion won in 1984.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress