What (if Anything) Can Developing Countries Learn from South Korea?

Thomas M. Domjahn


The economic development of South Korea since 1960 is one of the biggest success stories in the history of development. In just a few decades, South Korea transformed itself from an agricultural society to an industrialized nation exporting high-technology products such as cars, TVs, mobile phones or computers. Furthermore, after more than two decades of authoritarian rule South Korea changed relatively peacefully to a democratic society in 1987. On the other hand, many developing countries in Africa, Latin America or South Asia still face economic stagnation and enormous development problems: Poverty, inequality, bad health, a low life expectancy, illiteracy, ethnic and religious conflicts and discrimination of women are a daily occurrence. Observing these large differences in the development level of South Korea and today’s developing countries, this article explores, what numerous underperforming countries can learn from the South Korean development model. This article argues that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for today’s developing countries to imitate the South Korean development model by simply adopting similar policies and formal institutions because, apart from conventional explications, informal institutions shaped by Confucianism (“Asian values”) and specific historical circumstances played a key role in the economic development of South Korea. Nevertheless, there are still some lessons to be learnt from South Korea.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5539/ach.v5n2p16

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