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South Korea-Health Care and Social Welfare

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South Korea Index


Figure 8. Increase in Licensed Health Care Personnel, Selected Years, 1955-85

Source: Based on information from Edward S. Mason et al., The Economic and Social Modernization of the Republic of Korea, Cambridge, 1980, 402, 404; and The Statesman's Yearbook, 1988-89, New York, 1988, 775.

The traditional practice of medicine in Korea was influenced primarily, though not exclusively, by China. Over the centuries, Koreans had used acupuncture and herbal remedies to treat a wide variety of illnesses. Large compilations of herbal and other prescriptions were published during the Choson Dynasty: the 85- volume Hyangyak chipsongbang (Great Collection of Korean Prescriptions) published in 1433 and the 365-volume Uibang yuch'wi (Great Collection of Medicines and Prescriptions) published in 1445. Shops selling traditional medicines, including ginseng, a root plant believed to have strong medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities, still were common in the 1980s. Because of the expense of modern medical care, people still had to rely largely on such remedies to treat serious illnesses until the 1980s--particularly in rural areas.

The number of physicians, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, and other health personnel and the number of hospitals and clinics have increased dramatically since the Korean War (see fig. 8). In 1974 the population per physician was 2,207; by 1983 this number had declined to 1,509. During the same period, the number of general hospitals grew from 36 to 156 and the number of hospital beds tripled from 19,062 to 59,099. Most facilities, however, tended to be concentrated in urban areas, particularly in Seoul and Pusan. Rural areas had limited medical facilities, because in the past there was little incentive for physicians to work in areas outside the cities, where the major of the people could not pay for treatment. Several private rural hospitals had been established with government encouragement but had gone bankrupt in the late 1980s. The extension of medical insurance programs to the rural populace, however, was expected to alleviate this problem to some extent during the 1990s.

The South Korean government committed itself to making medical security (medical insurance and medical aid) available to virtually the entire population by 1991. There was no unified national health insurance system, but the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs coordinated its efforts with those of employers and private insurance firms to achieve this goal. Two programs were established in 1977: the Free and Subsidized Medical Aid Program for people whose income was below a certain level, and a medical insurance program that provided coverage for individuals and their immediate families working in enterprises of 500 people or more. Expenses were shared equally by employers and workers. In 1979 coverage was expanded to enterprises comprising 300 or more people, as well as to civil servants and teachers in private schools. In 1981 coverage was extended to enterprises employing 100 or more people and in 1984 to firms with as few as 16 employees. In that year, 16.7 million persons, or 41.3 percent of the population, had medical insurance. By 1988 the government had expanded medical insurance coverage in rural areas to almost 7.5 million people. As of the end of 1988, approximately 33.1 million people, or almost 79 percent of the population, received medical insurance benefits. At that time, the number of those not receiving medical insurance benefits totaled almost 9 million people, mostly independent small business owners in urban areas. In July 1989, however, Seoul extended medical insurance to cover these self-employed urbanites, so that the medical insurance system extended to almost all South Koreans. Differences in insurance premiums among small business owners, government officials and teachers, people in farming and fishing areas, and those employed by business firms remained a divisive and unresolved issue.

Medical insurance programs for farming and fishing communities, where the majority of people were self-employed or worked for very small enterprises, also were initiated by the government. In 1981 three rural communities were selected as experimental sites for implementation of a comprehensive medical insurance program. Three more areas, including Mokp'o in South Cholla Province, were added in 1982. Industrial injury compensation schemes were begun in the early 1960s and by 1982 covered 3.5 million workers in most major industries.

During the 1980s, government pension or social security insurance programs covered designated groups, such as civil servants, military personnel, and teachers. Private employers had their own schemes to which they and workers both contributed. Government planners envisioned a public and private system of pensions covering the entire population by the early 1990s. In the wake of rapid economic growth, large sums have been allocated for social development programs in the national budget. In FY (fiscal year--see Glossary) 1990, total spending in this area increased 40 percent over the previous year. Observers noted, however, that serious deficiencies existed in programs to assist the handicapped, single-parent families, and the unemployed.

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A New History of Korea by Ki-baik Lee provides ample coverage of social developments during the Three Kingdoms, Silla, Koryo, and Choson Dynasty periods and during the Japanese colonial occupation. James B. Palais's Politics and Policy in Traditional Korea gives a succinct overview of Choson Dynasty social structure. Michael C. Kalton's translation and commentary on Yi T'oe-gye's The Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning contains a valuable discussion not only of the career of Korea's most noted Confucian scholar, but also of the philosophical and ethical fundamentals of neo-Confucian orthodoxy. Donald N. Clark's Christianity in Modern Korea provides excellent coverage of Christianity in contemporary Korea.

Vincent S.R. Brandt's A Korean Village and Han SangBok 's Korean Fishermen remain among the best descriptions of rural Korean life during the mid-1960s. Although published in 1971, Lee Hyo-jae et al.'s "Life in Urban Korea" remains informative. Korean family and kinship organizations are described exhaustively by Lee Kwang-Kyu in his two-volume Kinship System in Korea.

Virtues in Conflict, a collection of essays edited by Sandra Matielli, and Kim Yung-chung's Women of Korea discuss women's roles in Korean society. Female shamans are discussed in Kim Harvey Youngsook's Six Korean Women and Laurel Kendall's The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman. Kim Chin-wu's The Making of the Korean Language provides an informative account of that subject.

Interesting discussions of South Korea's changing social classes are contained in David I. Steinberg's The Republic of Korea, and in Kim Kyong-Dong's "Social Change and Societal Developments in Korea since 1945." Though its 1980 publication date precludes discussion of the major changes that have occurred since that year, Education and Development in Korea by Noel F. McGinn et al. provides excellent background on this important subject. Recent developments are covered in some depth by publications such as the Far Eastern Economic Review, whose weekly "Arts and Society" section deals extensively with education and other social matters. Other periodicals containing discussions of South Korean society, education, and cultural expression include Korea Journal, the Social Science Journal, published in Seoul, and Korean Studies, published by the University of Hawaii. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of June 1990

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