South Korea has the lowest fertility rate of any country. The government is pushing back with lavish spending programs, and South Korea has begun to face flows of refugees from the Middle East.
S. Cho, a South Korean woman, was at a job interview when the interviewer asked, “Will you have children? We prefer someone who can work for a long time.” In her mid 30s, Cho told me that she moved to New York after this experience, hoping to both birth children and keep working.
You can’t avoid being a beggar, if you keep giving birth to children.
– South Korean national slogan to reduce population, 60’s-70’s
The Presidential Committee on Aging Society and Population Policy of South Korea announced last week that South Korea will not only have the lowest general fertility rate of any country, but also the rate is expected to fall below half that needed to sustain current population levels.
The general fertility rate average birth rate is calculated by the total number of live births per 1,000 women in reproductive age, 15 to 49 years, in a population per year. According to the World Bank’s fertility rate research, the fertility rate of South Korea has declined steeply since the 1960s.
Older South Koreans still remember the national slogan, part of a program to reduce population in 1960-1970s, “You can’t avoid being a beggar, if you keep giving birth to children.” It was a similar to China’s One-Child policy.
However, the situation has totally changed today. The rate should be equal to or higher than the 2.1 per mother rate needed to maintain South Korea’s population. Yet, the rate dipped under 2.1 in 1983 and the government has not been able to change this trend, in spite of launching the Vision 2020 program in 2006 to attain a 1.6 fertility rate.
Low fertility rate is a common phenomenon in developed countries, with the 1.6 rate matching the average for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. There can be various reasons across countries, but usually womens’ social advancement, improved contraception, and prolonged education period explains it.
However, South Korea’s extreme case cannot be explained easily.
The Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs reported that the main reasons for the low fertility rate are a low gross national happiness (GNH), expensive housing costs, and conflicting priorities between work and parenting.
S.Cho, a woman interviewed by Lima Charlie News, said that the biggest impediment is child care expenses. Ms. Cho wants to have 2 to 3 children, but decided against it after seeing her friends suffer from being a “working mom.” She said, “Although the government has a policy [to increase birthrate], it cannot be used properly because Korean companies do not want to hire women that have children or provide maternity leave.”
In short, these complex social problems and young people’s fear of childbirth and rearing have caused the extreme low birthrate of South Korea.
Is the problem of low fertility in South Korea an inevitable fate?
South Korea is looking for a solution to solve this old problem. The Presidential Committee on Aging Society and Population Policy announced, “It is estimated that the birth rate will fall to 1.0 or less by recording about 320,000 births this year. There is concern that the birth of children will reach under 200,000 before 2022.”
The chairman of the committee is the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. On the official website, President Moon wrote a greetings letter for South Korean citizens who want to have children. “We need to improve the reality of choosing between working and parenting. We will support the work-life balance improving policy. Both men and women work and take care of children together. The government and local community will make every effort together in a country that cares for our children.”
The government plans to spend an extra $800 million next year to improve government support for parenting such as medical care and childcare. This will bring the total budget to solve the low birth rate problem in 2019 to about $27 billion.
The key policies of the program include funding towards childbirth, medical expense alleviation for infants, and shorter working hours for parents without wage cuts. Single parents will get greatly expanded support with the new policy. Monthly direct financial aid for parenting will be expected to go up by 30 percent. Also, this support will be continued until the child reaches 18 years old (the current policy only extends to 14 year olds).
Can Refugees Be a Solution?
Opinions on accepting refugees are also being considered as a solution for the low birth rate.
Park Yoengsuk, representative of the Millennium Project Korea (an international non-profit organization composed of futurists and scholars), argued that accepting refugees can be the solution to solve this problem during a radio interview on June 27th. She said the fertility rate of Nigerian immigrants in France is 6.7 when native French have a much lower birth rate.
On June 30th, anti-Yemeni refugee protests were held on Jeju Island and in Seoul. The South Korea government had confirmed a VISA-free policy to increase tourists in Jeju Island, but 561 Yemenis entered Jeju to apply for asylum. The Yemenis are mostly adult men who are seeking employment in Korea. Jeju citizens called them “fake refugees” and Yemenis are still awaiting asylum decisions from the government.
A polling agency, RealMeter, reported that 53.4% of citizens opposed the acceptance of refugees while 37.4% favored. This skeptical response is likely caused by recent news about refugee crimes in Europe and South Korea. A majority of people are worried that the acceptance of refugees can cause safety problems.
Some people insist that acceptance of refugees is not only a solution to the fertility problem, but it also contributes to South Korea’s international stature, an argument advanced by the Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon. The Minjoo Party (the left leaning ruling party of South Korea) has been silent and has not yet issued an official statement.
Although the new policies are expected to increase the fertility rate, Korea faces an uphill battle to tackle the problem and change Korean citizens’ minds about having children. The specifics of policy enforcement have not been announced yet.
Yet, this is not just a problem of South Korea. Japan, China, and United States birth rates are 1.44, 1.7, and 1.7, respectively. China changed the One-Child policy in 2015 to a Two-Child policy to increase the birth rate, but newborns have decreased by about 880,000 last year compared to 2016.
Low birth rates cause negative effects economically because of an aging and declining population, GDP reduction, slow economic growth, and increasing costs of national pensions. If the problem of low birth rate persists, East Asian economies may weaken. And in spite of their issues with reproduction, the three East Asian largest countries (China, Japan, and South Korea) have been the least accepting of refugees from different continents among the OECD countries.
[Main image: AP Photo/WFP, Ho]
LIMA CHARLIE NEWS, by Du “Dennis” On
Du On (Dennis) is a veteran of the Republic of Korea Army. Dennis is currently attending Stony Brook University in New York, majoring in Business Administration and Management. While in South Korea, Dennis worked in the Human Resources Development Division of the City Hall of Gimje as a Public Social Worker.
Lima Charlie provides global news, featuring insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.
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