South Korea - Global health

Global health is one of South Korea’s five priority issues; current focus is on effective COVID-19 response

South Korea spent 28% (US$670 million) of its total official development assistance (ODA) on global health in 2020, up from 8% (US$222 million) in 2019, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC). The massive jump in funding is largely due to South Korea’s COVID-19 response. A large proportion of these funds were channeled through bilateral contributions (83%; US$555 million), including earmarked funding to multilaterals, which accounted for 11%, or US$73 million, down from 15%, or US$34 million, in 2019. South Korea’s proportional bilateral funding saw a modest jump from 84% (US$188 million) in 2019 to 94% (US$628 million) in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 crisis, including earmarked funding to multilaterals. Multilateral funding accounted for just 6% of total ODA to health, a considerable decrease from 2019 when multilateral funding accounted for 16% (US$35 million), but still well below the DAC average of 44%.

The main recipients of South Korea’s multilateral ODA to health in 2020 were the International Development Association of the World Bank (IDA; 2% of South Korea’s total health ODA) the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund; 1%) the World Health Organization (WHO; 1%), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi; 1%). 

The COVID-19 crisis dramatically reshaped the South Korean global health funding landscape and South Korea’s broader endeavor to increase its influence as a ‘middle-power.’ South Korea was invited to the G7 summit as a guest nation in June 2021, where it pledged a historic US$200 million to the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC); a significant increase from the previous pledge of US$10 million in 2020. The pledge allocated US$100 million for 2021 and an additional US$100 million in financial and in-kind contributions for 2022 to expand vaccine supply to lower-income countries.

President Yoon Suk-yeol (People Power Party) signaled that he would strengthen the response system to infectious diseases with the aim of making South Korea a ‘vaccine powerhouse’. He has made the commitment to establish a global vaccine hub and expand health research and development (R&D) in bio-digital and advanced medical care. President Yoon Suk-yeol was inaugurated on May 10, 2022. 

South Korea was designated as a WHO ‘Global Biomanufacturing Training Hub,’ aiming to strengthen partnerships to support COVID-19 responses. South Korea committed to providing 3.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as a total of US$200 million in support through COVAX to the African Union. This partnership in vaccine development and bioindustry workforce training will boost development cooperation between South Korea and Africa.

South Korea made two major pledges for the 2020-2022 period, pledging US$25 million to the Global Fund at its sixth replenishment, and US$3 million per year, for three years, to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to accelerate vaccine developments for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) with epidemic potential and enable equitable access to vaccines in lower-income countries. South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) will provide an additional KRW4.3 billion (US$4 million) to the International Vaccine Institute (IVI) for capacity building. South Korea joined the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) as a ‘Facilitation Council’ member, providing strategic advice and guidance to ACT-A, and is one of eight countries—with the US, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, and Mexico—in the 'market leader group'.

South Korea’s funding to Gavi AMC, the Global Fund, CEPI, and ACT-A have dramatically increased over the course of the pandemic, but funding from the Global Disease Eradication Fund (GDEF, a government program that aims to prevent and eradicate infectious diseases in partner countries) suffered significant losses. GDEF funds are raised through taxation on international flights departing from Korea. In the past, South Korea has supported several projects of multilateral organizations with GDEF funding, but limited travel during lockdown directly impacted its resource levels, with financing shrinking by 36% from KRW63.2 billion (US$54 million) in 2020 to KRW40.7 billion (US$35 million) in 2021. GDEF funding to multilaterals decreased by 73% between 2020 and 2021 from KRW31.2 billion (US$27 million) to KRW8.3 billion (US$7 million). GDEF funding to multilaterals is projected to be KRW9.6 billion (US$8 million) in 2022, remaining similar to 2021 levels.

Global health is a priority issue in the ‘Mid-term Strategy for Development Cooperation (2021-2025)’ and has grown in importance due to the COVID-19 crisis. South Korea has set out the following multipronged approach until 2022: 1) increasing ODA to health by 4% from KRW408.7 billion (US$346 million) in 2021 to KRW425 billion (US$360 million) in 2022, 2) strengthening support to COVID-19 vaccines; 3) strengthening and developing the health and medical systems of partner countries; 4) building the infectious disease response capacity in partner countries; and 5) enhancing South Korea’s contributions by leveraging the solidarity groups for global health security that it leads in the UN, WHO, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as well as building partnerships with civil society organizations, private sector, research institutions, and philanthropic organizations. It will focus on developing therapeutics, providing training, and establishing healthcare facilities. It also seeks to further expand on the linkages between its foreign policies, such as the ‘New Northern Policy’ and ‘New Southern Policy,’ and its policies on development cooperation. The ‘New Northern Policy’ and ‘New Southern Policy’ serve to elevate ties with partner countries situated north and south of the Korean peninsula (see ‘Strategic Priorities’).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs ‘Development Cooperation Bureau’ leads on development of global health policy.

South Korea’s global health policy is largely determined by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Within MOFA, the ‘Development Policy Division’ leads on developing global health policies. The ‘Multilateral Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance Division’ manages relations with multilateral health initiatives such as the Global Fund and Gavi. 

The Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) and the Korea Foundation for International Healthcare are also engaged in improving global health. Their global health programs include medical and healthcare assistance programs, including the provision of medical devices, equipment, and disaster relief. MOHW is responsible for the core and voluntary contributions to the WHO.