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[Robert J. Fouser] South Korea as No. 1?

Last week, a BBC article from 2017 stating that life expectancy in South Korea would become the longest in the world by 2030 popped up on a social media feed. The article noted that life expectancy for women would reach 90 years and 84 years for men, both the highest in the world. The article praised South Korea for universal access to health care and low obesity rates.

The next day, I was organizing some books and found a copy of “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America” by Ezra Vogel, a former professor at Harvard University. The book came out in 1979, just in time for the 1980s economic boom that turned into a bubble. It argued that Japan could be a model for the US in seeking solutions to vexing social and economic problems of the day.

The title of the book prompted me to wonder what a book entitled “South Korea as Number One: Lessons for America” might look like. “Lessons” from one country are difficult to apply to another but they could help stir discussion. US Sen. Bernie Sanders and his proteges, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, often refer to Canada and Scandinavia in arguing for universal health care and other social programs.

What, then, does Korea do so well? Clearly life expectancy is one. According to the World Health Organization in 2015, life expectancy for both sexes ranks 11th in the world. A more meaningful definition of life expectancy is “health adjusted life expectancy,” or the number of years one can expect to be healthy. This already ranks third for both sexes and will most likely rise with life expectancy to take the No. 1 spot by 2030.

The rise in life expectancy comes from universal access to affordable health care. Koreans visit the doctor frequently and get regular medical checkups, which help detect health problems early. Lifestyle changes have helped as well. Smoking rates have fallen rapidly in recent years, and younger people are drinking less. Though Koreans like their cars, daily use of public transportation makes it easier to fit in more walking into their daily routine.

Another thing that Korea does well is education. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2017, Korea had the highest rate of high school graduation and of completion of tertiary education in the 25- to 34-year-old group. The percentage of gross domestic product spent on education was eighth highest in the OECD and the highest in Asia.

Since 2010, Korea has made rapid progress in developing early childhood education and care. In 2016, South Korea ranked fourth among OECD countries in the percentage of children under the age of 3 enrolled in early childhood education and care programs. Between 2010 and 2015, expenditure on such programs increased the most among OECD countries. Universal early childhood education and care encourages women to enter the workforce by making child care affordable.

The Human Development Index produced annually by the United Nations Development Programme comprises life expectancy, education and per capita income indicators. The idea is that prosperity includes health and education, not just material achievements as measured by income. Korea ranked 20th among the 58 nations surveyed in 2018. Among Asian countries, only Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan ranked higher. The United States ranked 13th.

A closer look at HDI data shows that South Korea ranked lower than the US and Japan because its per capita GDP was lower. Comparison with the US is notable. In 2017, gross national income per capita at purchasing power parity for the US was $60,200 compared to $38,340 for South Korea, but life expectancy and educational attainment in Korea are higher. This suggests that, despite the US having significantly more wealth, the US is not using its wealth as effectively as Korea to improve the health and education of its citizens.

The lessons for the US are clear: universal health care and universal education from early childhood to secondary school improve the well-being of people and contribute to social development. The question for the US is how to develop a consensus to achieve these goals at a time of sharp political polarization.

For Korea, success in promoting the well-being of its people should give it confidence to look at areas where it has lagged behind. The most obvious is poverty among senior citizens. Pensions in South Korea remain weak as do employment opportunities for seniors. The urgency of the problem will most likely push politicians to address the issue as the next election cycle approaches. 

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.