Do South Koreans Perceive Themselves Accurately?



We’ve recently covered South Korean income distribution trends in the context of growing global income inequality (here and here). South Korea is becoming more and more unequal and has a looming demographic crisis. In many societies, these realities are poorly understood by the public at large with significant implications for politics. What about in South Korea?

It turns out that South Korean citizens are surprisingly well-informed on these social issues. The IPSOS MORI Perils of Perception” Report released last December surveyed citizens from thirty-three countries across the globe on their perceptions of economic inequality and other social and demographic issues within their own country. Among all countries surveyed South Koreans had the most accurate perceptions.

It has been widely documented that respondents typically do not understand the distribution of income in their own countries. As can be seen in the first figure below, respondents—including South Koreans—typically believe that the top one percent in their country held a higher share of total wealth than they actually did. This result counters findings that people underestimate the levels of inequality in their country, although questions on income inequality in this poll were few in comparison to other studies and limited only to questions about the one percent. In a separate question (second figure below), people were asked what percentage of the wealth they think the wealthiest one percent should own. Most countries, including South Korea, said that the wealth concentrated in the top one percent should be lower than what it is in reality.


On immigration, along with most of the world, South Koreans over-estimated the number of foreign born immigrants in the country. But Koreans were comparatively accurate (average guess: 11%; actual number: 3%). Americans, on the other hand, were 19 percentage points off in their estimation (average guess: 33%; actual number 14%), which would help explain the salience of immigration issues in this electoral cycle.

All countries in the study also overestimated the percentage of citizens that were non-religious except for Japan and South Korea, whose average responses were slightly below the reality. South Koreans not only tend to underestimate the level of non-religious people in their country but had the third highest percentage of non-religious people (46%) after Japan (52%) and China (57%).

An interesting measure of the persistence of sexism is perceptions of women’s role in the workforce. Koreans were among the least accurate on this metric, significantly underestimating the female labor participation rate. (average guess: 42%; actual number: 55%). South Koreans did pretty well on estimating the share of female legislators however, with an average guess of 14% but actual number of 16%. Interestingly, according to KOSTATS, the percentage of women law makers in North Korea is also 16%, although the percentage that actually wield power is a different story.

Simply understanding socio-economic problems doesn’t lead to policy solutions, but South Koreans appear to have a relatively solid grasp of reality.

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