In Sweeping Look at Korea's Education System, World Bank Group President Suggests Country Needs to Unleash Creative Potential of Students, Women, Young Workers

November 4, 2014

Kim says Lessons for Korea are Lessons for the World

Seoul, November 4, 2014—World Bank President Jim Yong Kim urged Korean educators and policymakers to better balance the nation’s stellar but stress-loaded education system, suggesting that the country can build a more robust and creative economy by encouraging students to develop a diverse mix of cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

On his third visit to his native country as the Bank’s leader, Kim also called for breaking down rigid socioeconomic hierarchies related to age and gender so that the Korean economy could benefit from the hidden potential of women and youth. Lessons from the country’s remarkable achievements and ongoing efforts to meet current challenges were important not just in Korea, but for the world, he said.

“Viewed historically, Korea has made truly remarkable progress over the past 50 years by building a highly educated, industrialized and prosperous nation on soil once deeply stained by poverty and conflict,” he said. “Today, unleashing the full creative potential of students, women and young people and encouraging the free flow of ideas through the economy constitutes Korea’s next socioeconomic frontier.”

Speaking at a symposium sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Kim emphasized the need to create more open, inclusive workplaces and reduce the gender gap in labor force participation and wages.

In 2012, more Korean women than men graduated from university. Yet only 56 percent of working-age women have jobs today, compared to 78 percent of men. Also Korean women earn 37 percent less than Korean men, the biggest gender gap in an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country.

Korea is not properly leveraging the huge pool of productivity and creativity among its female citizens,” Kim said. “Integrating more women in the workforce would result in significant economic gains for Korea. One study suggests that narrowing the gap between men and women in the labor force has the potential to raise annual GDP growth rates by 0.6 percent over the next 20 years.”


Explaining his global vision for human capital in the 21st century, Kim said creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial energy were more important today than ever before, not only to boost economic growth but also to solve some of the world’s most serious problems such as the current Ebola outbreak.

A physician and anthropologist by training, Kim reflected that both academic skills and cross-cultural experiences had played an important in his career, including helping him find creative ways to treat people battling diseases in poor countries and to set ambitious goals for the World Bank Group.

“Taking on new challenges, solving problems creatively, and working across different backgrounds and cultures are now primary tasks for human capital,” he said. “As we reduce poverty and build shared prosperity, the economic interaction between high and middle-income countries—whose numbers I expect will dramatically swell by 2030—will be increasingly global, technology-driven and services-based. Economies across the world are going to need a lot more creative thinkers and problem-solvers to meet these challenges, and Korea is building from a high base.”

Kim said that his emphasis on building the right mix of skills was drawn from collaborative studies by the World Bank Group, the Korea Educational Development Institute and several Korean think tanks. Citing a conference edition of the study “Intelligence, personality, and creativity: Unleashing the power of intelligence and personality traits to build a creative and innovative economy,” Kim noted that Korea’s education system did an excellent job of developing both cognitive skills and certain non-cognitive skills such as conscientiousness and grit.

International tests show that Korean 15-year-olds ranked among the highest in the world on tests of creative problem-solving. However, the psychological costs inherent in the system may be hampering creativity as students focus too narrowly on some subjects and their families struggle to pay for expensive private tutoring.

Korea has an incredibly high-performing system, but with that kind of performance, there’s also fatigue and an increasing level of stress for students and families,” Kim said in calling for more balance in the results-driven ethos.

 “Human capital in the 21st century may be conceptualized as a balance of factors – an individual’s non-cognitive and cognitive skills, and the creativity of young and old, women and men,” he said. “Korea’s drive for a creative and innovative economy is therefore a challenge that followers of Confucius would appreciate. Like yin and yang, what lies ahead is a process of harmonization to ensure the balance of these things. Korea’s present national dialogue on how to promote continued rates of economic growth and increases in living standards is part of this progression.”

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