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Reforming Pension with Pensioners: Social Dialogue and the Politics of Developmental Welfarism in Japan and Korea


Reforming the public pension system is one of the tough quandaries of welfare states due to progressive aging of the society and economic downturn. To make pension reform fiscally sound and sustainable, benefits must be cut while contributions must be raised. Apprehending popular opposition, governments have introduced the idea of social dialogue in carrying out this unpopular reform by installing participatory policymaking bodies in order to achieve consensus among political parties, interest groups, and citizens. This study examines what has happened to two East Asian countries, Japan and South Korea, which have initiated pension reform with similar goals in similar manners. The Pension Subcommittee of the Social Security Council in Japan hammered out an agreement in 2003 after 2 years of deliberation, which was passed in 2004 after slight revisions. On the contrary, South Korea's National Pension Development Committee failed to reach a consensus in 2003 and recommended three reform options, all of which were discarded. The result was a stopgap compromise in 2007 among the political parties right before the presidential election. The differences in the autonomous power of welfare bureaucracy, the structure of civil society representation in the participatory policymaking body, and the degree of issue politicization are argued to be the cause of the opposite outcomes of social dialogue for reforming the public pension system in Japan and Korea.

Those different variables, however, are insufficient to explain the varied policy outcomes, considering the profound similarities of the two countries. Japan and South Korea are the major archetypes of the so-called developmental state, and both of them are known to have developed the strong state-weak society nexus. The welfare programs in the two countries share the general traits of the developmental welfare state in which welfare policies have been subordinated by economic policies. Since the 1990s, the civil societies in both countries have been greatly invigorated. Thus it is essential to examine how the similar welfare regimes have generated different institutional settings accounting for the opposite outcomes in the pension reform initiatives.

This dissertation suggests that this puzzle should be examined from a macro-historical perspective by examining the historical transformation of "developmental welfarism" in the two countries. First, Japanese developmental welfarism established through the welfare bureaucracy's interaction with the stable ruling party and the under-empowered civil society, has turned the welfare bureaucracy into the primary regulator of welfare services. To serve the interests of the ruling party, the welfare bureaucracy has shied away from provoking politically sensitive issues such as tax increases while relinquishing welfare responsibility to society by transforming the society as the government's welfare service partners. On the other hand, Korean developmental welfarism featuring the welfare program as an instrument for political legitimation, has made the welfare bureaucracy a politicized client of the political elite. In order to accomplish welfare goals imposed by the top decision makers, the Korean bureaucracy had to rely on society's resources, which gradually undermined its bureaucratic autonomy. Unlike its Japanese counterpart, the Korean state became regarded as the direct provider and guarantor of welfare services.

Under these circumstances, the Japanese welfare bureaucracy was able to carry through unpopular reform by effectively preventing the issue from being politicized. The civil society representatives were isolated from the technocratic decision making process in the deliberation council. The representatives, civil society organizations, and the political parties were not linked to exert power in the policymaking process. However, the Korean bureaucracy could not keep the original reform agenda under control because the issue was rapidly politicized by the representatives of civil society and interest groups, supported by the civil society associations and the political parties linked to them, in the deliberation council. Thus, in conclusion, the introduction of the participatory policymaking measure does not necessarily enrich social dialogue to hammer out an agreement for carrying out unpopular reform initiatives. On the contrary, the existing structure and pattern of governance is reinforced by it.

In addition to the theoretical implications for developmental welfarism and participatory governance, this dissertation sheds lights on some theoretical controversies in the field of Japanese politics, Korean politics, and the comparative policy literature, all of which underscore the importance of a historically transformed state-society relationship in the two countries, a substantial difference of Japan and Korea.

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