Being a developed nation

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Being a developed nation

 Yum Tae-jung
The author is the director of the EYE team at the JoongAng Ilbo.


A developed country has achieved development, while a developing country is in the process. South Korea has been finally categorized “developed.”

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in a recent board meeting unanimously decided to include South Korea in the developed category alongside the United States, France and Japan. It is the first such promotion by UNCTAD since its founding in 1964.

The government and ruling party went exuberant. President Moon Jae-in celebrated the unanimous recognition of South Korea as a developed nation among UN members. The Democratic Party issued a statement touting how the world has accepted our country as a developed country.

“Developed” is a relative and broad concept. It mostly refers to countries more advanced than developing or undeveloped economies.

The category refers to comprehensive factors including per capita income level, industrial structure, education and cultural standards and life expectancy. Wealth is not the primary determinant. Oil money-rich Middle East nations are not regarded developed. South Korea bears a painful memory associated with the term.

The county was euphoric in joining the so-called rich club of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1996. Two years later, the country had to seek an international bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Even with UN recognition, South Korea does not feel like a developed nation. The society brims more with conflict and rage than warmth.

According to the analysis of the Korea Development Institute on the 2021 World Happiness Report published by the UN Sustainable Development Solution Network through comparative study on gross domestic product, life expectancy, living standards and social resources, Korea ranked 35th among 37 OECD members. Finland and Demark topped the list whereas Greece and Turkey were at the bottom after Korea.

Poverty rate of the senior citizens is particularly high. As of 2018, the rate was 43.3 percent, triple the OECD average of 14.8 percent and well above the U.S., at 23.1 percent, Japan, at 19.6 percent, and German, at 10.2 percent. The UNICEF Innocenti Report Card found the mental health of Korean children at the bottom, although their physical health and academic achievement were at the top.

Even without referring to data, the young people are a sad sight. They are called the 3G (give-up) generation for giving up dating, marriage and childbirth. The defeatism has come to include giving up relationship, homes, and dreams. The Academy-winning Parasite portrayed the woes of the young and poor in the polarized society.

Korea is weak in social resources. Social resources are composed of trust, connectivity and rules. Wellbeing and contentment are low in Korea compared to its economic power and as is life expectancy due to fragile social resources. Reliable relations are rare and compassion leading to donations and volunteer activities are lacking, whereas corruption is high and that weighs on social contentment.

Trust in others in Korea is even lower than in China. Only southern Europe, South America, and North Africa demonstrate lower trust than in Korea.

American political science professor Francis Fukuyama included Korea and China in the low-trust societies in late 1990s.

Not much has improved since then. According to a study by the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2017, Korea remained at the bottom in the three social resources of trust, rules and social networks. All the presidential wannabes place fairness first, which suggests how unfair the society is. Korea may have been accepted as a developed country, but it has a long way to go to achieve happiness and quality of life to the standard of a matured society.

The young at least must not have to give up anything. When they speak of dreams, home and achievement, then Korea would truly be a developed nation.
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