What Did Civil Examination Do for Korea?

with Junseok Hwang and Heejin Park

to be presented at the 8th World Congress of Cliometrics, 4-7 July, Strasbourg, France

Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research Working Paper 2016-5

We analyze the records of individuals climbing the bureaucratic ladder of pre-colonial Korea to find that civil examination, theoretically driven by meritocracy, served to support, rather than weaken, status order. The affirmative action taken by the monarch to stabilize regime was more than countered by elite countermeasures. Correlations between civil examination success on the one hand and literacy and the diffusion of improved rice seeds in colonial Korea on the other suggest that civil examination stifled human capital accumulation and technological progress by supporting elite dominance. The origins of neither the growth miracle nor democratic transition South Korea achieved can be traced back to pre-colonial era.

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