South Korea is witnessing massive shifts in its demography. Demographers name this phenomenon as ‘demographic transition.’ The demographic transition theory refers to a significant shift from high birth rates and high infant mortality rates in less developed nations to low birth rates and low infant mortality rates as the nation starts developing with better healthcare facilities, education, and economy.

For the first time in the history of South Korea, in 2020, the number of deaths recorded exceeds the number of births, pointing towards the country’s declining population. The majority of the population that was once young is slowly aging. According to the World Bank, South Korea will become the fastest aging society with the lowest birth rate in 2020. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, Korea is bound to have the largest share of elderly people. This Demographic shift also has direct consequences on the economy. We witness the South Korean economy gradually decelerating. For the past ten years, the average growth rate has been 2.5%, significantly lower than the average of 8% in the 80s and 90s, when the percentage of the young working population was higher. 

Let us look at some figures to understand the current demographic situation of South Korea better.

  • In 2020, the number of new births fell by 10.65% from 2019.
  • On the other hand, the death rate increased by 3.1%.
  • South Korea recorded 3.07 lakh deaths, but only 2.75 lakh births in 2020 
  • The fertility rate of the country is currently the lowest in the world. It fell from 4.5 births per woman in the 1970s to just 0.8 births per woman in 2020. (which is significantly lower than the fertility rate of 2.1 required for replacing the existing population). In Seoul, the rate goes as low as 0.64. 
  • At the end of 2020, the county’s population had declined by 20,838 since last year.

REASONS FOR THE DECLINE OF THE POPULATION

POLICIES OF THE GOVERNMENT:  

During the early 20th century, South Korea started witnessing a demographic shift, all thanks to the introduction of Western Medical and Health Systems. This led to an increase in the life expectancy of the people (from 37 years during the 1930s to 52 years in the 1960s. As a result of which, the population started rapidly increasing and made it difficult for the Government to provide adequate resources to the growing population. Thus, during the 1960s, the South Korean Government became more involved in family planning to control the population. Some of the schemes of the South Korean Government’s anti-natalist policy included the promotion of family planning. Thus the population started rapidly declining during the mid-1960s. The healthcare centers in Korea needed to provide family planning consultations and sensitize the population about traditional contraceptive methods like intrauterine devices (IUD), condoms, and vasectomies. Though believed that the population would eventually stabilize in the 1980s, it did not happen. The fertility rates continued to decrease until now.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: 

Most of the decline in population around the world is often linked to the changes that occur in the economy of the nation. The same was the case with South Korea when it went through a substantive demographic transition due to rapid economic development in the 1960s and 1970s after the Korean War. The high cost of living and soaring property rates (South Korea is the 11th most expensive city in the world) discourages the population from expanding their family as they cannot afford it.

 It became even worse after the economic crisis of 1997, which resulted in the shutting down of businesses, increasing unemployment, making it more difficult to sustain in the society. Even after the crisis, the young professionals were left with less job security which led to people delaying their marriages. It also contributed significantly to the increasing divorce rates as people were not able to support their families. Thus further affecting the birth rate. 

CULTURAL IMPACT:

As the economy developed, the culture of South Korea was also strongly impacted. The current generation is not only reluctant to have children but is foregoing romantic relationships entirely. They do not even prefer having casual relationships, and more and more people are inclining towards having independent life and careers. This can also be because South Korea is among the countries with the highest working hours (According to a 2016 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea has working hours to 2,069 hours per year, per worker. Third highest in the world. Therefore, the people are so consumed by the country’s work that they find it very difficult to spare any personal time for themselves, let alone thinking about taking care of their family. 

Moreover, the women find it difficult to apply for maternal leaves. Traditionally women are expected to take care of the house and children, but as more women are opting for jobs, they face a dilemma to choose between family or career. Most women feel that if their husbands or other family members contribute to these tasks, they are more willing to have children.

“SAMPO”: A new expression “Sampo Generation,” i.e., “Three Giving-Up Generation,” is becoming quite popular in the current scenario of Korea. It refers mostly to the young population of Korea in their 20s and 30s that is giving up (PO) three (sam) major aspects of social life- courtship, marriage, and kids, mostly because of the extremely high cost of living, lack of affordable housing and expensive schooling and tuition fees.

Another important reason for the low birth rates in selective abortions. In Korea, even today, there is a strong preference for sons because they believe that as women do not carry the family name after marriage, they are not able to continue their family lineage. 

The Korean culture also puts much emphasis on the education of the children as they believe higher education is a good institution and a path to improved socio-economic status and respect in the society. They are even willing to pay the exorbitant tuition fees to get their children into private schools. Therefore, even the couples who are willing to have children prefer only one child so that they can focus on the well-being of the child without having too much of a financial burden. 

HOW IS THE GOVERNMENT DEALING WITH THE PROBLEM?

The Government, over the years, has tried to come up with various policies. For example, in 1988, it has banned the detection of the sex of the fetus during pregnancy, with the hope to reduce female infanticide. However, despite making sex detection illegal, there is not much difference in the female infanticide rates.

The Committee on Ageing and Future Society (CAFS) was established in 2003 to come up with various policies to increase fertility rates. In 2006, they announced the “First Basic Planning for Low Fertility and Aged Society 2006 which included daycare and pre-school education support and economic benefits like social insurance for multi-child families. 

The Government additionally expanded monetary help for married couples who find it difficult to conceive. The subsidy can be as high as 70% of the cost of artificial insemination for a maximum of four sessions. 

The South Korean Government also aims to reduce its maximum working week from 68 hours to 52 hours with the hope to see an increase in the birth rates. Presently, parents who have children below the age of 8 years are allowed to leave work one hour early. It has also started providing paid paternity leaves for up to 10 days.

Moon Jae-in had in 2017 announced to start a scheme in 2022 that will give an oddball installment of 2 million won for every kid conceived to help parents financially with the child-rearing. Until the baby turns one, the Government will pay around 300,000 won every month. 

CONCLUSION

Korea’s experience related to the demographic crisis is not unique. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, by 2050, one in six people will be over the age of 65, which is remarkably lower than the figures of 2020, which states that presently, one in eleven people are over the age of 65. This phenomenon is more prominent in the more developed countries. As Korea has started showing signs of decreasing rate of population, it needs more robust implementation of policies. It should follow a multi-faceted approach that includes improving the work culture of Korea, providing child support and affordable ways of living, including maternal and paternal leaves, making the education system and healthcare affordable, etc. Suppose the fertility rate continues to decline at this rate. In that case, the country could face a serious issue of demographic crisis as there would be a large proportion of the ageing population that would need support from the Government and at the same time, there would not be enough workforce to keep running the economy at a high rate which could affect the economy of Korea badly. No doubt the Government is working actively to increase the fertility rate of the nation. We hope the Government in the future comes up with more schemes like these to improve the situation of South Korea. 

by Aashna Verma

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