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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development

The Political and Social Economy of Care in the Republic of Korea



This paper applies the idea of the “care diamond”—a conceptual framework used to understand how care is produced and provided by the state, market, family and community—to the political and social economy of care in the Republic of Korea. It argues that the institutional arrangements that make up the care diamond in Korea have changed quite noticeably since the 1990s in response to the country’s evolving political, economic and social contexts. Using the case of family/work harmonization policy reforms, it discusses the reconfiguration of the care diamond and the significance of this for gender. The first section of the paper describes the social policy regime in Korea and how this relates to the idea of the care diamond; the second section highlights key findings from the time use survey analysis based on data from 1999 and 2004; and the last section discusses the political economy of policy change through an in-depth examination of the care regime configurations and social policy–making processes in Korea since the 1990s, and considers the implications for gender.

The Korean social policy regime has features of both strong familialism and male breadwinner orientation. In addition, as a newly industrialized country, Korea has to contend simultaneously with both industrialized and developing nation socioeconomic contexts. For example, a rapid decline in fertility and population ageing, a shift to the service sector and knowledge-based economy, and changes in norms about de-familialization, individualization and gender equality coexist with a sizeable informal labour market and an underdeveloped welfare state. However, the situation has altered since the 1990s as the government responds to changes in political and socioeconomic contexts. The welfare state has expanded significantly since 1997, and since 2003, has also seen a noticeable enlargement of social care. This paper focuses on one aspect of social care expansion: childcare and family/work harmonization policies.

The time use survey analysis based on data from 1999 and 2004 shows that despite increased state support for the burden of care placed on families, women continue to take on a large share of unpaid care work within households, and that the total value of this work represents a significant percentage of Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP). The analysis suggests that married women bear the largest burden of unpaid care work in Korea, and that much of this work is focused on childcare. Based on the survey data, Peng concludes that the gender division of labour remained relatively unchanged between 1999 and 2004, and that regardless of their employment status, women—particularly married women—took on a disproportionately large share of unpaid care work, in terms of both the amount of time they spent and their participation rate. The calculations suggest that in 2004 unpaid care work accounted for around 29 per cent of GDP, with women’s contribution amounting to 24 per cent and men’s 5 to 6 per cent.

The care diamond in Korea has traditionally been skewed toward the family and the market, with women undertaking a huge amount of unpaid care work, and the market providing reasonably secure jobs for men to support their families. Since the 1990s the Korean state has taken on a larger role in regulating, providing and financing social care services. It appears that the state’s participation in social welfare and care will expand farther. The market’s role in supplying and maintaining steady and secure employment for male breadwinners has weakened as a result of labour market reforms. It has instead repositioned itself as a supplier of social and care services, and a source of new, albeit precarious, service sector employment. Since a significant portion of this new service sector industry relates to care, both for children and the elderly, the market will likely take on an increasing role within the care diamond. The family remains an important site for social welfare and care, but has been relieved of some of its care and welfare responsibilities with the expanded participation of the state and market in social welfare. Finally, there is an increased expectation that non-governmental and voluntary organizations will play a larger part in providing social welfare and social care. The configuration of the Korean care diamond has thus shifted from a strong emphasis on the family and the market to a more balanced redistribution of care and welfare provision.

Social policy reforms have significantly contributed to the reconfiguration of the care diamond. These reforms, however, did not happen in a rational and systematic way. Rather, as the case of childcare and family/work harmonization policy reform illustrates, it came about as a result of intense contestation among various political actors within and outside of the government. An analysis of the childcare policy–making process thus shows that politics and ideas play an important role in shaping social policy and the welfare regime.

This paper demonstrates that the care regime in Korea has changed since the 1990s in response to shifts in the country’s political and socioeconomic contexts. Recent social care expansion has contributed to a more balanced redistribution of care and welfare provision among the state, family, market and community. But it is still unclear whether these changes will result in greater gender equality in Korea. So far, there is no evidence to suggest that greater gender equality has been achieved.

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  • Pub. Date: 16 Oct 2009
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1994-8026
    From: UNRISD