The Korea Herald

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지나쌤

Korea's national debt hits record high in 2023

By Choi Ji-won

Published : April 11, 2024 - 15:45

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This photo shows people walking on the street in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on March 29. (Yonhap) This photo shows people walking on the street in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on March 29. (Yonhap)

South Korea's national debt surged by nearly 60 trillion won ($44 billion) last year, reaching a record high.

According to a report on the 2023 national settlement of accounts approved at a Cabinet meeting, the country's national debt stood at 1,126.7 trillion won, up by 59.4 trillion won from 2022.

The total includes 1,092.5 trillion won owed by the central government and 34.2 trillion won owed by provincial governments, increasing by 59.1 trillion won and 300 billion won, respectively, from the previous year.

An official from the Ministry of Economy and Finance explained that the fiscal deficit accumulates annually, resulting in continuous growth of the national debt.

The debt growth accelerated notably during the COVID-19 outbreak, with government spending reaching unprecedented levels. The national debt exceeded 600 trillion won in 2016 and 700 trillion won in 2019, then tacked on some 100 trillion won a year from 2020, when it reached 846 trillion won, followed by 970 trillion won in 2021 and 1,067 trillion won in 2022.

The increase in national debt was largely driven by tax revenue shortfalls. Last year, national tax revenue amounted to 344.1 trillion won, falling short by 51.9 trillion won from the previous year's revenue.

The record-high national debt also led to the debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio hitting an all-time high, surpassing 50 percent for the first time since data recording began in 1982. This ratio, which exceeded 30 percent in 2009, rose to over 40 percent in 2020 and reached 49.4 percent last year

On a per capita basis, the national debt translates to around 21.78 million won, based on an estimated population of 51.7 million in December.

The government's national fiscal management plan for the 2023-2027 period projects further increases in the debt-to-GDP ratio, with estimates of 51 percent for this year, 51.9 percent in 2025 and 53 percent in 2027.

Meanwhile, national assets exceeded 3,000 trillion won for the first time in history last year, reaching 3,014.5 trillion won, reflecting a 6.4 percent increase from the previous year.