South Korea - Gender equality

South Korea’s funding for gender equality is low, despite important policy commitments; gender equality at risk under new government

28% of South Korea’s bilateral allocable official development assistance (ODA), or US$503 million, was reported as gender-focused in 2020, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD’s) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) gender policy marker, which donors can use to mark investments that name gender equality as either a significant or principal goal (see box). This is well below the DAC average of 45%. South Korea ranks as the 15th-largest DAC donor of gender equality in absolute terms and the lowest DAC donor to gender equality in relative terms, in measuring ODA as a share of gross national income (GNI). Gender-related funding as a proportion of bilateral ODA more than doubled, from 12% in 2019 to 28% in 2020. 

Gender policy marker: Projects which “advance gender equality and women’s empowerment or reduce discrimination and inequalities based on sex” are tagged in the OECD’s Creditor Reporting System (CRS) database.

Recent research by Oxfam found that around 25% of projects self-reported by donors using the gender equality marker were mismarked. This has implications for the validity of funding figures.

The marker rates projects based on three possible scores:

1) Principal, meaning that gender equality is the main objective of the project or program,

2) Significant, for projects in which gender equality is an important and deliberate goal but not the main objective, or

3) Not targeted, used in cases where programs do not target gender equality.

Not all projects are screened against the gender marker; this funding falls into the ‘not screened’ category.

While 2020 saw a slight increase in the proportion of gender-related funding, funding for gender equality could decrease with new President Yoon Seok-youl's anti-feminist platform and increased focus on global health. Under the new leadership of Yoon, the prioritization of gender equality remains a concerning question for development advocates. The former conservative prosecutor considers himself an anti-feminist and called for the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. He has blamed the low birth rate in South Korea on feminism and capitalized on young men's fears about feminism and modest women's rights gains to win votes in the election. He has also stated that he does not believe that gender-based systemic and structural discrimination exists in South Korea.

Gender-related funding in 2020 was concentrated in South Korea’s priority sectors of health & populations (US$224 million), education (US$65 million), water and sanitation (US$58 million), and infrastructure (US$56 million). UNFPA opened a regional office in Seoul in February 2019, intended to strengthen the organization’s engagement with South Korea on matters related to public health, sexual and reproductive health, and rights (SRHR), and an aging population. UNFPA and South Korea plan to cooperate in implementing South Korea’s 'Action with Women and Peace' initiative, launched in 2019. 

In its ‘2022 Implementation Plan’, the government will focus on improving women’s economic and social status by strengthening women’s economic capabilities and promoting women’s human rights. In line with this strategy, the ODA budget allocated to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) increased from KRW7.25 billion (US$6 million) in 2021 to KRW8.7 billion (US$7 million). Gender equality is included as one of the six basic pillars for development in South Korea’s ‘Framework Act on International Development Cooperation.’ KOICA’s ‘Mid-term Sectoral Strategy 2021-2025’ focuses on three strategic objectives for gender: economic empowerment, social status, and basic rights. Gender is included as a cross-cutting sector, critical to maximizing South Korea’s contributions to the SDGs. Gender mainstreaming is included within individual Country Partnership Strategies (CPS).

In addition to its bilateral contributions, South Korea channels some funding for gender equality through multilateral organizations. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family contributed US$5 million to United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) in 2020 and pledged KRW4.9 billion (US$4 million) for 2022. In 2022, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) will provide a voluntary contribution of KRW900 million (US$750 thousand) to UNFPA to implement the ‘Action with Women and Peace’ initiative. The Ministry of Health and Welfare will also provide contributions of KRW210 million (US$170 thousand) to UNFPA. 

In recent years, South Korea has increased its collaboration with multilaterals on gender equality including through a partnership between KOICA, UNFPA, and UN Women, launched in 2018 to accelerate progress toward SDG 5 (“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”) through innovative country-level programming.

12% of gender funding principally targets gender equality; the majority of projects are screened but do not target gender equality 

Most of South Korea’s bilateral ODA (US$1.2 billion, or 67%) was spent on projects that were marked as screened but not targeting gender equality, while US$100 million, or 6%, was spent on projects not screened against the gender marker in 2020.

Of the US$503 million spent on gender equality in 2020, 12% (US$61 million) went toward projects and programs that targeted gender equality as a principal goal. This corresponds to 3% of South Korea’s overall bilateral allocable ODA, below the DAC average of 7%.

South Korea spent US$442 million (24%) of its bilateral allocable ODA on projects that included gender as a significant objective, significantly below the DAC average of 38%.  

While overall gender-related funding grew, the proportion of principal funding for gender decreased from 4% in 2019 to 3% in 2020. The overall increase can be attributed to the share of ‘significant’ gender-related funding tripling, from 8% in 2019 to 24% in 2020.

The CIDC has overall responsibility for promoting gender equality within South Korea’s ODA portfolio

Gender equality cuts across all sectors of development; therefore, the ‘Committee for International Development Cooperation’ (CIDC) has primary responsibility over gender-related ODA promotion. The key ministries and agencies that implement South Korea’s gender-related ODA are KOICA and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF). However, this funding stream could change drastically if President Yoon Suk-yeol abolishes the MOGEF, as he claimed in his election. Funding for gender could decrease drastically.

In the ‘2021 Implementation Plan,’ the CIDC said it will try to strengthen gender awareness and sensitivity within other ministries and agencies responsible for implementing South Korea’s ODA. The ‘2022 Implementation Plan’ noted that the government will focus on improving women’s economic and social status by strengthening women’s economic capabilities and promoting women’s human rights. The ‘Mid Term Strategy for Development Cooperation (2021-2025)’ also states that South Korea will strengthen its support for vulnerable groups, including women, and its consideration of gender and human rights during policy and project design.