This story is part of Forbes’ coverage of Korea’s Richest 2021. See the full list here.
South Korea weathered the pandemic better than most last year. Its economy contracted a slender 1% in 2020, putting it back among the world’s top ten largest economies, according to the IMF. Korean equities also did well, with the benchmark index up over 30% in 2020, the second-best performer globally and the best in Asia (but relatively unchanged so far this year).
Family-run conglomerates still touch almost every aspect of South Korea. But there are signs of change: for the first time since Forbes released the inaugural Korea richest list in 2005, a self-made entrepreneur, Seo Jung-jin, holds the No. 1 spot. Four others on the top ten are also self-made.
These self-made fortunes are emerging from new economy sectors such as e-commerce, entertainment and gaming. Six out of South Korea’s 12 unicorns are preparing for IPO this year following Coupang’s successful debut in the U.S. in March, which made the founder of the e-commerce giant, Bom Kim, No. 7 on the list.
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The OECD projects GDP growth will bounce back to about 3% both this year and next, slightly stronger than the pre-pandemic growth of 2% in 2019. That recovery is being fueled in part by rising global demand for South Korean products, which boosted exports to near record value in March. The government also plans to invest 114 trillion won ($103 billion) over the next five years to digitalize the nation and transition to an ecofriendly economy.
South Korea still faces short-term challenges. Despite early success in testing, its vaccination program is progressing slowly. The inequality gap is widening; home prices in Seoul rose 22% last year, the biggest increase among major cities in Asia. Millennials are struggling with job prospects, and joining the middle class remains out of reach for many South Koreans. The long-term outlook, however, remains ripe for wealth creation.