first 10 units of the Hyundai XCIENT Fuel Cell

Republic of Korea

The Republic of Korea (chapter 25) boasts the world’s second-highest research intensity. Investment in research contributed an estimated 40% of national GDP over 2013–2017.  

Since 2017, the government has been pursuing innovation-driven and income-led growth, in partial pursuit of previous government policy. The Future Vision for Science and Technology: towards 2040 (2010) has been revised to emphasize quality of life, consumption based on social values and support for SMEs.  

The Sustainable Development Goals for affordable and clean energy as well as climate action (SDGs 7 and 13) are proving a challenge; ambitious targets to 2040 for renewable power generation will require considerable infrastructural investment. One government plan in the works is to help farmers transform degraded farming areas into solar farms.  

In line with the I-Korea 4.0 (2017) strategy for Industry 4.0, the country has begun installing a designated network for the Internet of Things and is commercializing 5G. The Personal Information Protection Act (2017) was amended in January 2020 to authorize commercial use and analysis of personal information.  

One trend of some concern is the slide witnessed in scientific and technological competitiveness since 2010, even though research expenditure has increased.  

Consequently, the government has striven to restructure the innovation ecosystem, including through the establishment of a National Science, Technology and Innovation Office in 2017 to improve co-ordination of the system. Other measures include merging administrative online systems for research; increasing researchers’ autonomy by enabling them to design their own projects in basic science; evaluating research with a focus on process, rather than outcome; and a shift towards ‘disruptive innovation’ to regain competitiveness.  

Establishing greater regional autonomy has been another policy priority. The government has created national innovation clusters centred on regional priorities. Public institutions and state-owned enterprises have been relocated to the provinces to support this endeavour. The Ministry for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (est. 2017) is supporting this initiative and there are plans for SMEs, more generally, to play a greater role in national innovation.  

Government expenditure on research and development as a share of GDP for the G20, 1996–2018 (%)

Source: UNESCO Science Report: the Race Against Time for Smarter Development (2021), data sourced from UNESCO Institute for Statistics and animated by Values Associates

Government expenditure on research and development Race


  • Figure 25.1: Socio-economic trends in the Republic of Korea 
  • Figure 25.2: Trends in research expenditure and innovation in the Republic of Korea 
  • Figure 25.3: National innovation clusters 
  • Figure 25.4: Trends in scientific publishing in the Republic of Korea
  • Table 25.1: Republic of Korea's progress towards its 2017 targets for R&D 
  • Table 25.2: Major targets to 2022 of the Republic of Korea’s Fourth Basic Plan for Science and Technology
  • Box 25.1: Republic of Korea embracing autonomous ships