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South Korea’s Jobless Rate Hits 10-Year High as Virus Surges

Sam Kim
·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- South Korea lost the most jobs in two decades and the unemployment rate hit a 10-year high as the country’s worst coronavirus outbreak yet forced businesses to slash hiring.

The nation shed 628,000 jobs in December compared with the prior year, a tenth straight monthly drop and the most since February 1999. Restaurants and hotels were the hardest hit, but manufacturing also lost more than 100,000 jobs for a second month, signaling that a recovery in tech exports has yet to translate into increased employment.

The jobless rate jumped to 4.6%, the highest since January 2010. Economists had forecast a reading unchanged from November’s 4.1%.

The worst jobs losses since the late 1990s Asian financial crisis could spur more calls for the Bank of Korea to put increased emphasis on employment in setting monetary policy. The BOK is expected to hold rates at a record low when it meets Friday.

Bank of Korea Under Pressure to Broaden Mandate With Jobs Goal

The deteriorating labor market also adds pressure on the government and lawmakers to come up with more ways to shore up the economy.

Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki, speaking in a statement, said difficulties in the labor market are likely to persist through February and pledged to do more to combat it.

President Moon Jae-in’s administration already plans to give 4.6 trillion won ($4.2 billion) in cash handouts to millions of South Koreans before next month’s Lunar New Year holiday and front-load fiscal spending in the first half of the year.

What Bloomberg Economics Says...

“Though the latest virus surge is beginning to recede, authorities will likely loosen curbs only gradually to stamp out virus transmission. That would mean the drag on the labor market -- and domestic economy -- may persist through the winter.”

--Justin Jimenez, economist

For the full report, click here.

The damage to the jobs market reflects the tightening of social distancing rules after Korea’s daily infection tally surged above 1,000 last month. Curtailed hours for most shops and the shutdown of karaoke parlors and other businesses where the spread of disease is more likely have hurt workers in the service sector, especially during the holiday season.

“No year-end drinking parties and no spending splurge and you have services workers suffering job losses,” said economist An Young-jin at SK Securities. “The tighter social restrictions hurt sectors that would normally see seasonal improvement.”

Restaurant and hotels shed 313,000 jobs, roughly twice November’s losses. Employment in the manufacturing industry was down by 110,000 workers in the month, a slightly smaller decline than in the previous month but still worrisome given the economy’s dependence on exports and factory work.

Korea’s Weak Job Market Shows Limits of Tech-Led Recovery

“Manufacturing has been under pressure from greater labor costs even before Covid-19 and the virus only adds to the trouble,” said Sung Tae-yoon, an economics professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “An exports recovery isn’t necessarily going to translate into more jobs in the tech sector, which has already automated much of its manufacturing.”

Construction continued to see improving employment, adding 23,000 workers, amid a government push to increase public housing.

BOK Frets Over Uneven Recovery as South Korea Waits for Vaccine

Korea’s ongoing recovery in exports has supported the broader economy, but the job market outlook depends on a successful containment of the latest virus wave and a loosening of restrictions. The number of new infections in South Korea has come down to around 500 a day recently.

(Adds comments from the finance minister.)

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