This paper aims to examine the state of social capital in Korea and to explore the possibilities for development of policy to nurture social capital in the country. Social capital refers to intangible assets in the form of norms, institutions, networks, and trust that facilitate cooperation and help overcome social dilemmas.
Korea is faced with multi-faceted challenges including a decline in the potential growth rate, aggravated income inequality, and a fast aging society. Yet policy reorientation and institutional reform are beset with difficulties that arise from fragmentation of the society and deeply-held distrust of public authority. These difficulties in turn reflect Korea’s development trajectory during the twentieth century: colonial rule by the Japanese, a devastating civil war, government-led economic development, and democratization process that is still young.
Western literature on social capital tends to emphasize the role of civic participation in the accumulation of social capital. This tendency presumes that civic associations are open and diverse in membership and internal discourse democratic, and that these characteristics will ensure participation to lead to greater social trust. It is doubtful whether dominant forms of Korea’s civil society associations, mostly based on school and regional ties can fulfill a similar facilitating role. We argue in this paper that the differences in the trajectory of social development in Korea are likely to require a different policy approach in enhancing social capital, and that the government needs to develop policies under the following principles.
First, the government effort should be focused first and foremost on governance reform. Impartial judiciary, corruption-free government, consistent and succinct law that commands public respect, accountability in policy formation and implementation, and participatory and deliberative policy process are the essential elements in this regard.
Second, government intervention to promote participation in civic associations should take a cautious, “gardening”-style approach. The government should abstain from picking the winners among various civic organizations. What types of civic organizations should be promoted is best determined through the initiative of the civil society itself (for instance through community foundations) or individual taxpayers (for instance through the percent law).
Third, research efforts to study viable policy options should be vigorously supported. The cumulative body of policy research is still shallow across the world. Furthermore, development of social capital takes place within the historical and cultural contexts of a society. While we can learn from the literature overseas, eventually domestic policy initiatives should be informed by domestic policy research, especially in the area of social capital.