The paradox of inequality in South Korea: Minsaeng kyŏngje and reinvigorated developmentalism

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Scholars have debated whether former South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s commitment to minsaeng kyŏngje (the economy for the people’s livelihood) was a reflection of the global rise in compassionate conservatism that attempted to address growing inequality or merely lip service to social policy. However, this debate has confined the issue to the social policy realm without explaining the paradox of inequality resulting from Park’s minsaeng drive. Although this drive allowed Park to exploit inequality for political gains, old policies of developmentalism increasingly returned to the forefront of her policy agenda. This article offers an alternative argument: that minsaeng kyŏngje was neither a sincere nor a false compassion, but a political discourse maneuvered by the Korean conservatives to reinvigorate old developmentalism in the face of inequality. The Park government first offered minsaeng kyŏngje as a catch-all discourse, which included the promotion of welfare policies and the traditional doctrine of economic development. Later, the government reinterpreted minsaeng as a subset goal of economic development. It scaled back welfare pledges and manipulated the minsaeng concept to legitimize development policies. By analyzing both the orientational and organizational characteristics of Korea’s developmental welfare state via manifesto analysis and word cloud testing, this article demonstrates how Korean conservatives made use of the norm of low taxation to avoid a systematic welfare increase and proposed an alternative minsaeng discourse by combining old developmentalism with a few welfare policies. The structure of a narrow power coalition enabled the Park government to maneuver the minsaeng discourse to fulfill its shifting policy priorities without coordination with other political actors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)481-504
Number of pages24
JournalPacific Affairs
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Ji-Whan Yun is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Ewha Womans University, Seoul, South Korea. Email: * This work was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant, funded by the Korean government (NRF-2016-S1A5A2A01022026).

Publisher Copyright:
© Pacific Affairs.


  • Compassionate conservatism
  • Minsaeng kyŏngje
  • Narrow coalition
  • Norm of low taxation
  • Park geun-hye
  • Reinvigorated developmentalism
  • Welfare state


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