Economic Development: The Case of South Korea
Grade Level: High School – Community College
Includes curriculum unit + CD-ROM
South Korea stands as one of the largest economies in the world, producing some of the biggest ships and inventing some of the most advanced consumer electronics. With its roots in a traditional agrarian economy, South Korea grew rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s under an export- and heavy industry-focused strategy, led by the state and large conglomerates called jaebols. In less than 50 years, South Korea’s gross domestic product increased from $2.7 billion in 1962 to over a trillion dollars in 2007.
But such growth has not been without challenges. In 1997–98, the South Korean economy faced its greatest difficulty during the financial crisis that swept through Asia. Through tough restructuring and a renewed focus on high technology, it overcame the crisis and has developed into a much more complex economy. Today, South Korea exports not only goods, but also its popular culture in the form of movies, songs, dramas, and other cultural products. As the country has continued to evolve, so too have the economic challenges it faces. Major present-day challenges include rising income inequality, the economic impact of an aging society, and contentious discussions about the economic implications of possible reunification with North Korea. As such, the story of South Korea’s economy is a fascinating tale of the promises and risks of capitalism in modern economic development.
Lesson One sets the context for the rest of the unit and prepares students for subsequent lessons by providing them with basic background information on two major topics: Korea and development. Students first take a short quiz and read an introductory handout on Korea. They are then led through a series of exercises to engage their visual and logical-mathematical intelligences, build their understanding of Korea’s geography and history, and acquaint them with the notion of development and other basic economic concepts. Students also examine three major contributors to economic growth, read about Korea’s recent economic history, identify characteristics of the development process, and consider three different types of economic systems.
Lesson Two examines four major drivers of South Korea’s economic growth: exports, education, government policy, and jaebols. Students view and take notes on a video lecture by Yong Suk Lee, a South Korean economist at Stanford University. After a discussion, students read about jaebols and their role in Korean society, find and share a jaebol-related news article with classmates, and work in teams to research and profile a jaebol of their choice.
Lesson Three examines the growth of Korean popular culture and the importance of popular culture to the Korean economy. Students learn how Korean popular culture, known as hallyu, has become an integral part of Korea’s export-led economic strategy. They examine how the export of culture is a form of soft power that gives countries influence on the world stage. Finally, students explore what it means for a country to have a brand and create a tourism marketing campaign for a country or region of their choice.
Lesson Four comprises a collection of activities and resources focused on four broad economic challenges facing South Korea: the “maturation” of its economy, the graying of its population, rising inequality, and potential reunification with North Korea. Students can explore all four topics in sequence or focus on just one or two; the lesson’s direction is left to teacher discretion and/or student interest.