The New South Korean Administration' s National Happiness Policy

January 2013

On 19 December 2012, Park Geun-hye, representing the Saenuri Party(*1), was elected as the eighteenth president (*2) of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Under South Korea's presidential system of government, the people directly elect presidents, who are appointed for a single five year term. The president wields considerable power when it comes to appointing personnel to form a government, which features a top-down decision-making process. In the past, key policies have been revised to reflect the distinguishing features of each successive administration.

While pursuing research in connection with IGES research themes, I reviewed the incoming administration's pledges on energy- and climate change-related policy. In the run-up to the election, the real difference between the governing party to be and its opposition came down to their stances on abandoning nuclear power generation. Whereas the future opposition party proposed abandoning nuclear power generation, the nuclear policy stance of Ms. Park's camp was that they would continue using nuclear power as the primary source of electricity, but would ensure safety by conducting stress tests of nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, they addressed the issue of renewable energy stating that they would draw up a map of available renewable energy resources and devise a strategy for achieving dissemination targets in addition to achieving the targets pledged to the international community with regard to GHG reductions.

As soon as the results of the election were known, Ms. Park emphasised that she would forge the Era of National Happiness promised in her election manifesto. She also named her regime the "National Happiness Government" (tentative), and explained that it implies the need for a paradigm shift whereby public policy would be managed by the people rather than the state, and the fruits of national advancement resulting from economic growth would benefit the lives and happiness of individuals.

The current Lee Myung-bak administration adopted the "Low-Carbon Green Growth" policy as its national vision pursuing a kwin-win strategy" of environmental conservation and economic development in tandem. This, it was asserted, was the model of sound national development that humankind should be pursuing, with the added benefit that it would also improve quality of life and lead to happiness. On the other hand, the five key themes for public policy (*3) proposed by the future Park administration include using social welfare policies to establish policies for national happiness. However, as a researcher I soon began to wonder how the success of such policies can be assured. We are now in the process of assessing the Lee Myung-bak administration's low-carbon green growth policy, but in five years' time how will we be able to quantitatively and qualitatively analyse national happiness policy?

Using an economics-based approach to analyse happiness has grown in research since the late 20th century onwards. Given that happiness is abstract, and the individual preference and the determinants of happiness across cultures are subjective, there is still a concern to assure the reliability of the method to measure and analyse the study. However, the need for the study is growing. GDP is the index most commonly used to denote a country's level of development but, as is often pointed out, it is of limited use in indicating a country's levels of welfare and well-being. The international community agrees on the necessity to employ individual happiness, improved lifestyles and sustainability as the measures of social development. It should renounce the idea of development based on economics-based concepts such as GDP and understand the need for a new comprehensive index that includes economic, social, environmental and sustainability-related factors. The GNH (Gross National Happiness) (*4) policy adopted in Bhutan, the "land of happiness" , could offer some specific hints in this regard.

The aspirations the South Korean people harbour for their incoming administration's national happiness policy inspire hope for the future. The Lee Myung-bak administration advocates the need for balance between economic and environmental progress, giving its policymaking a green hue, and as I picked up a copy of Happiness: A Revolution in Economics (*5), I wondered to myself what colour would define the new administration with its pledge to provide both national advancement and happiness for the Korean people.


    1. The governing party; also known as the New Frontier Party.
    2. The final voter turnout nationally was 75.8%, of which Ms. Park garnered a 51.6% share to become the eighteenth president. Ms. Park's term of office will be from 25 February 2013 to 24 February 2018, and she will be the first female president in the history of constitutional government in South Korea. She is the eldest daughter of Park Chung-hee, who retained South Korea's presidency during the fifth to ninth presidential terms.
    3. The five key themes in public policy: (i) unification of the Korean people through conciliation, and personnel appointments based on ability rather than factional affiliations; (ii) economic democratisation based on interdependence and coexistence; (iii) strong security and trust-based diplomacy; (iv) change and reform within a framework of stability; and (v) an “Era of National Happiness” through customised welfare services.
    4. Bhutan is a country in the eastern Himalayas with a population of 700,000. The fourth king proposed his theory of national happiness as the basis for national governance. Happiness is now measured using the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. This index denotes the degree of balance between society's economic development on the one hand and individual emotional and spiritual quality of life on the other. In Bhutan 97% of citizens claim to be happy, and the ethos that guides the country's government inspired the UN's permanent members to vote unanimously to adopt happiness as a ninth UN Millennium Development Goal.
    5. Happiness: A Revolution in Economics by Bruno S. Frey (NTT Publishing, 2012)

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