This paper examines the changed social circumstances of older people in South Korea and specifically the increased need for formal health and social services for those who are frail and have no informal carers. The article begins with a summary account of the country's exceptionally rapid demographic, economic and social transformations, which demonstrates a widening gap between the population's expectations and needs, and health and social service provision. It then examines the recently initiated and now burgeoning welfare programmes, with particular attention to health and social services for sick and frail older people. Most extant care services are accessed mainly by two minorities: the very poor and the rich. The dominant policy influence of physicians and a history of conflict between traditional and western medicine probably underlies the low current priority for ‘care’ as opposed to ‘cure’, as also for the management of chronic conditions and rehabilitation. Neither long-term care services nor personal social services are well developed. There is a marked disparity between the acute services, which are predominantly provided by private sector organisations in a highly competitive market and broadly achieve high standards, and public primary care and rudimentary residential services. The latter are weakly regulated and there are many instances of low standards of care.
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