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Human Capital and Development

Lessons and Insights from Korea's Transformation

Ju-Ho Lee, Hyeok Jeong and Song Chang Hong

During recent decades, Korea has been one of only a handful of countries that have made the successful transformation to become a developed nation by simultaneously achieving persistent economic growth combined with a democratic political system. Experts and political leaders worldwide have attributed this achievement to investments in people or, in other words, the power of education. Whilst numerous books have highlighted the role of industrial policies, technological growth, and international trade in Korea’s development process, this is one of the first to focus on the role of human capital. It shows how the accumulation of human capital aided transformation and helps explain the policies, strategies and challenges that Korea faces now and in the future.
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Chapter 5: Deteriorating skills and weak lifelong learning

Ju-Ho Lee, Hyeok Jeong and Song Chang Hong


It is well-known that Korean students’ performance belongs to the top group in international competence tests such as OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which have been testing fifteen-yearold students from the OECD member countries in reading, mathematics and science every three years since 2000. Recently, the OECD implemented a similar test for adults during the period from 2011 to 2012, called PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies), where the competence or skill levels of 16_65-year-old adults are measured in the three areas of literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technologyrich environment skills. Surprisingly, the performance of Korea’s adult population in the PIAAC test was quite disappointing. In contrast to the stellar performance of the Korean youth in PISA, Korean adults’ skill levels turned out to be slightly lower than the OECD averages. Furthermore, the gap between Korean skill level and the OECD average widens as the population gets older. We are motivated by this puzzling fact and attempt to explore the features of Korean adult skill levels from the PIAAC data. In particular, we focus on establishing empirical patterns of age–skill profile after controlling for a rich set of confounding factors rather than establishing the causal relationship. However, we will provide a benchmark study so as to infer that weak life-long learning is the key fundamental problem for the Korean education system and labor market. It would be difficult to establish a solid causal inference about the relationship between skill levels and age simply from observing that the skill level decreases in age from PIAAC. Such observation may indicate that the skill level deteriorates as people get older, which can be interpreted as a ‘depreciation’ of human capital stock with age for some reasons. However, this may also indicate that younger generations are more skilled than older generations. That is, it might indicate that there has been improvement in skill across cohorts during Korea’s development process. To distinguish between the two possible interpretations, we need to use panel data. PIAAC, however, provides a cross-sectional data at the moment so that the empirical pattern about the cross-sectional age–skill profile from PIAAC does not clearly tell us about the precise interpretation.

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