A Malthusian Study of 20th Century Korean Economic Development

This paper was written for Economics 1339: Generating Wealth of Nations, a Harvard undergraduate course taught by visiting professor Jeffrey Borland.


While there exists substantial literature regarding the application of Malthus’s economic model to European countries prior to and following the Industrial Revolution, little effort has been spent applying the model to Europe’s neighbors in the east. South Korea in particular seems to be a compelling subject, insofar as its meteoric rise to economic power in the 20th century remains largely unprecedented and a fairly complete data set exists for many of its economic indicators. Dubbed the “Miracle on the Han River” by some economists, South Korea’s recent history has seen the country’s per capita national income increase 80-fold from US $125 in 1966 to over US $10,000 in 1995. Like Europe prior to the Industrial Revolution, Korea prior to the Korean War followed the Malthusian economic hypothesis of rising populations preventing sustained increases in standards of living. Statistics from the post-Korean War era up to the present day, however, indicate that South Korea (hereinafter as “Korea”) has since broken free of the Malthusian trap, thanks in large part to a series of government-endorsed economic development plans and also to cultural shifts like the rise in family planning.

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