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Being one of the most inventive countries in the world is a remarkable accomplishment given that South Korea spent the first half of the 20th century as a war zone and an agriculturally oriented Japanese colony.
Bloomberg’s 2020 Innovation Index places it second only to Germany after it topped the list of 60 nations for the previous five years. South Korea is placed 11th among the 129 nations in the separate 2019 Global Innovation Index, which was released by Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organization. Germany is ranked ninth.
Both indices draw attention to South Korea’s exceptional performance in research and development (R&D) intensity, a metric based on the amount of money invested in R&D by both the public and private sectors as well as the number of researchers who move back and forth between them. For instance, data from the academic recruitment agency League of Scholars shows that among 71 nations, South Korea had the highest percentage of researchers who transitioned from industry to academia in the years between 2017 and 2019.
According to Tim Mazzarol from the University of Western Australia in Perth, who specializes in innovation and entrepreneurship, South Korea’s high R&D intensity emerged from a historically “top-down” innovation system that encourages “close collaboration between government, industry, and the academic community in the process of nation building.”
Between 1961, when he was installed as president in a military coup, and 1979, when he was assassinated, President Park Chung-hee spearheaded South Korea’s economic growth. The following year, Park shifted the economy’s emphasis from domestic labor-intensive businesses like garments and textiles to foreign corporations building industrial facilities, which had been a post-war economic staple. Importantly, his first five-year economic development plan in 1962 and the founding of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) in 1966, as well as the Ministry of Science and Technology the following year, both placed a heavy emphasis on R&D.
These tools assisted in the development of enormous industrial conglomerates known as “chaebols,” which were owned and run by South Korean people or families. The government protected the chaebols from competition while pressuring them to make significant R&D investments. Chaebols like LG, Lotte, and Samsung were propelled toward new heavy sectors, such as petrochemicals, car manufacture, shipbuilding, and consumer electronics, as a result of increased R&D intensity that concentrated on applied expertise.
One example is Samsung. The largest chaebol in South Korea, which began as a grocery merchant in 1938, currently works in a variety of sectors, including shipbuilding, electronics, insurance, and construction. It contributed almost 15% of the country’s gross domestic product to the world in 2018.
With the aid of government protectionist measures, its founder, Lee Byung Chul, expanded into textiles following the Korean War, electronics in the 1960s, heavy industries, aerospace, and computers in the 1970s, and computing in the early 1980s. By the 1990s and 2000s, Samsung had established itself as a global leader in tablet computers, smartphones, and computer processor design and production.It outperformed its nearest competitor in the corporate rankings, LG, which had a share of 1.99, to place 28th overall among the nation’s institutions in 2019 with a share of 10.36. Samsung is represented in each of the top nine corporate-academic collaboration pairs in South Korea, according to the Nature Index.
Samsung Group’s top ten collaborating academic partners on articles in the Nature Index journals are split between United States and domestic institutions. Here they are ranked by bilateral collaboration score (CS), 2015–19. CS is derived by summing each institution’s Share on the papers to which authors from both have contributed.
|1||Sungkyunkwan University||South Korea||75.07||159|
|2||Seoul National University||South Korea||21.10||41|
|3||Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology||South Korea||20.16||35|
|4||Stanford University||United States||19.29||31|
|5||University of California, Berkeley||United States||17.16||51|
|6||Korea University||South Korea||13.62||27|
|7||Yonsei University||South Korea||11.07||22|
|8||Harvard University||United States||9.67||26|
|9||Pohang University of Science and Technology||South Korea||8.82||16|
|10||California Institute of Technology||United States||8.35||12|
The most fruitful partnership, with 159 co-authored articles between 2015 and 2019, is with Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) in Seoul. Their cooperation is especially significant in the development of new energy sources like lithium-ion batteries and electrochemistry (J. K. Shon et al., Nature Communications, 7, 11049; 2016). Other collaborations include those between the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon and Seoul National University in Seoul (41 papers and 35 articles).
The successors to Park kept advancing science and innovation as the main forces behind societal and economic advancement in the country. R&D spending by the government and business increased, while fundamental research capacity increased. By the middle of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, the government’s focus was on high-tech sectors, including semiconductor design and manufacturing. For example, it established KAIST in 1971, which is still a top national research university (see “Manipulating brains with cellphones”).
A number of targeted nation-building initiatives were also started. For instance, in 1995, the government launched a ten-year, US$1.5 billion plan to expand the country’s broadband infrastructure and offer educational materials to the general public about how to best utilize it.
Following the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, many chaebols began to rely less on the low-value-added exports typical of “tiger” economies and more on knowledge- and technology-intensive goods and services, including semiconductors, mobile devices, and mobile applications.
In partnership with chaebols, the government started creating regional innovation hubs like Gyeonggi, a region of around 13 million people surrounding Seoul and currently considered the country’s economic and innovative powerhouse.
The center brought together local and national universities, research facilities, and industrial infrastructure. For instance, Samsung Electronics, the company’s flagship business with headquarters in Gyeonggi, is working with SKKU Chemistry to create a semiconductor material that can lower radiation exposure when capturing medical X-ray photos. South Korea has 18 technoparks, 105 regional innovation centers, and seven federal programs to boost the competitiveness of industrial cluster programs by 2010.
Although government financing continued to support R&D spending and initiatives to advance scientific, engineering, and managerial knowledge as well as translational development, the bulk of major R&D investment went to the business sector in quest of patents and profits.