Support for UBS in South Korea’s election campaign

The idea of Universal Basic Services (UBS) is becoming a hot topic in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections in South Korea. Primaries are underway to choose each party’s candidate. Currently, the ruling party's front-runner is Jae-Myung Lee, the country’s leading populist politician and a strong supporter of Universal Basic Income (UBI). He has pledged to give about $85 a year to all citizens and about $170 a year to young people.


Another ruling party candidate, Nak-Yeon Lee, is one of many politicians and experts who oppose UBI and argue for a new welfare system that includes the idea of UBS. They contend that the state is responsible for establishing "national living standards" in various fields that affect citizens' daily lives. These start with “minimum standards” for which the state takes immediate responsibility, and build towards “appropriate standards” over the coming decade. The first stage involves setting standards for human life in various fields such as income, care, medical care, housing, employment, education, culture, environment, and safety. The next stage is a longer-term vision to be realised by 2030, with responsibility shared between the state, individuals, businesses and civil society.


Meanwhile, in the camp of Seok-Yeol Yoon, leading candidate of the main opposition party, professor Sang Hoon Ahn leads on social welfare policy: he earned a doctorate in Sweden and is an advocate for UBS. He read The Case for Universal Basic Services by Coote and Percy, and found it closely aligned with his own ideas. He is preparing Korea's welfare policy as a presidential pledge, from the perspective of UBS.


Interestingly, the populist candidate Lee Jae-Myung, insists not only on basic income, but also on a universal welfare state and has recently announced that the state would take full responsibility for caring services for children, adults, and disabled people. In fact, it is common for Korean politicians at every election campaign to insist on expanding welfare services – especially childcare and medical services.


I have given a series of lectures on UBS at universities and national research institutes. Politicians are now asking me to develop specific policies for services such as medical care, education, childcare, youth, and housing, in line with the UBS framework. The most pressing challenge how to provide housing as a universal basic service. Many protagonists are now looking for new words to convey the idea of “universal basic services” because that phrase is too closely associated with UBI.


My Korean translation of The Case for Universal Basic Services was published in July 2021 and more than 600 copies have been sold so far. If, as expected, Jae-Myung Lee becomes the ruling party's presidential candidate, he is likely to fight next year’s election against the opposition’s Seok-Yeol Yoon. The relative merits of UBS and basic income could then become a major point of contention during the campaign.


Eun Kyung Kim works on regional economics and industrial policies at the Gyeonggi Research Institute, South Korea. She has worked on fiscal policies at Korea’s National Assembly, received a doctorate in economics from Paris Nanterre University and currently studies platform economies. She translated The Case for Universal Basic Services into Korean.