By Kerem Tuncer
It did not come as a surprise to anyone when the CIA World Factbook released that the total fertility rate in South Korea has fallen to 1.25 children born per woman, the lowest number in World Bank’s annual report on statistics on 200 different countries. This figure is significantly lower than the 2.1 limit, which is required to sustain the remaining population without any migrations.
Similarly, Korean officials have announced that around 360,000 babies will be born in the year 2017, as per the current estimates. It is very likely that this year will mark the first time the number of births in a year has fallen below 400,000.
The history behind this phenomenon
During the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, the government’s main focus was getting rid of the poverty, and they were successful.
One of the ways the administration used to grow the economy was by keeping the birth rates relatively low by advocating for more birth control. Local officials handed out free condoms and birth control pills, and they persuaded women to have tubectomies and men to have vasectomies. In return, the government handed out sacks of flour for wives and exemptions from army reserve training for husbands. “The Home Ministry set a quota on how many men and wives we should persuade to have a vasectomy or tubectomy,” said a former bureaucrat. “No public servant serious about his career could ignore it.”
Fortunately, the government’s agenda on birth control, combined with effective fiscal policies, shaped South Korea into an economic giant. Currently, the nation has one of the largest GDPs in the world, whereas the HDI is at 0.901, listed as ‘very high’ in the official rankings. On the other hand, the current situation in Korea is a prevalent phenomenon occurring in many of the world’s highly developed countries. A lot of people in places like Denmark, Norway, Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong are facing dangerously low birth rates, which have the potential of negatively affecting the economic growth rate in the long run.
The cause of this phenomenon in many countries lies in the fact that women play a much more significant role in the workforce. They do not possess adequate time to look after children, as they are focusing on their careers, which has been historically related to men until the last two centuries.
Unemployment and rising living costs
But, the Korean government gives a much different excuse to the dilemma: rising youth unemployment.
As the society holds a traditional view of expecting youngsters to get successful jobs in large corporations, many professional industries have become extremely competitive, requiring employees to have long working hours. Which, in fact, pushes many, who are not ‘skilled’ enough, to unemployment. However, the couples insist that unemployment is not the real reason behind the low fertility rates. According to them, the rising cost of living, including housing and soaring education prices means that having a large family is not an option.
In 2015, the number of South Koreans over 65 accounted for 12.8 percent of the population, crowning them as one of Asia’s oldest communities. The ratio is projected to grow to about 28.7 percent by 2035 and 42.5 percent by 2065.
At this rate, Moody’s, a leading credit rating business, classifies Korea as a soon-to-be ‘super-aged’ nation, where more than one in five of the population is 65 or older. It is predicted that the number of such countries would reach 13 in 2020 and 34 in 2030.
Efforts to fight the crisis
In the past years, South Korea has spent about $70 billion trying to boost the country’s birth rate by using various methods, some of which were noted as controversial. The annual budget for 2017 is around $13.85 billion. The government offers $900 to $2400 in support to childbearing families to decrease the financial burden on the parents’ behalf. This aid is combined with maternity leave for women and priority admission to public healthcare for childbearing families.
Controversially, the officials even tried rank town by fertility rates. The administration created an online “birth map” that used shades of pink to rating towns and cities by the number of women of childbearing age. As most would expect, the website shut down in a matter of hours, in response to an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the plan. “They counted fertile women like they counted the number of livestock,” an angry Korean commentator wrote with the headline “Are Women Livestock?”. They also exclaimed, “Did they think that men would flock to a town with more childbearing-age women?”
As no country has yet to successfully fight tremendously low birth rates, South Korea’s best bet would be to cooperate with other nations to engineer new policies that actually work.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius