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South Korea's fertility rate, already world's lowest, slips to record low despite incentives

The South Korean government has invested more than $270 billion to encourage couples to have more children, but the fertility rate dropped for the fourth straight year. Major political parties are showcasing policies to stem population decline, including housing and easy loans.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Seoul Published on: February 28, 2024 16:03 IST
South Korea, fertility rate, babies
Image Source : PIXABAY Representational Image

Seoul: South Korea's demographic crisis deepened with the release of data showing its fertility rate, already the world's lowest, falling to a record low in 2023 despite billions of dollars in government schemes designed to encourage families to have more children. One of the key reasons for this downslide is women concerned about their careers and the financial cost of children are opting to delay childbirth or not have babies.

According to data from Statistics Korea released on Wednesday, the average number of expected babies for a South Korean woman during her reproductive life fell to a record low of 0.72 from 0.78 in 2022. This is far below the rate of 2.1 per woman needed for a steady population and has shrunk for the fourth straight year, soon after neighbouring Japan recorded a decline in its population last year.

Since 2018, South Korea has been the only Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) member with a rate below 1, defying the billions of dollars spent by the country to try to reverse the trend that led the population to decline for a fourth straight year in 2023. South Korea also has the worst gender pay gap in the OECD, as Korean women bring home about two-thirds of the income of men.

"Women typically can't build on their experience to climb higher at workplaces because they are often...the only one doing the childcare (and) often need to rejoin the workforce after extended leaves," said Jung Jae-hoon, a professor at Seoul Women's University. The situation poses a grave risk to economic growth and the social welfare system as the country's 51-million-strong population is expected to halve by the end of this century.

Marriage rates also declining in South Korea

South Korea has previously projected its fertility rate is likely to fall further to 0.68 in 2024. The capital Seoul, which has the country's highest housing costs, had the lowest fertility rate of 0.55 last year. Despite major political parties promising more public housing and easier loans to promote childbirth, the future looks bleak for South Korea.

Being married is seen as a prerequisite to having children in South Korea, but marriages are also declining in the country. "There are people who don't get married but we think about why married couples choose not to have babies, and my understanding is that addressing that part is going to be the focus of our policies (to boost the birth rate)," an official at Statistics Korea told a briefing, without elaborating.

The parties' focus on population in their election planks reflects growing alarm after spending of more than 360 trillion won ($270 billion) in areas such as childcare subsidies since 2006 has failed to reverse record low fertility rates due to women choosing to advance their careers amid the added burden of a poor gender pay gap. "Having a baby is on my list, but there's windows for promotions and I don't want to be passed over," said Gwak Tae-hee, 34, a junior manager at a Korean dairy product maker.

What is the government doing?

Since 2006 the government has invested more than 360 trillion won ($270 billion) in programmes to encourage couples to have more children, including cash subsidies, babysitting services and support for infertility treatment, according to the Guardian. The current administration, led by the conservative president Yoon Suk Yeol, has made reversing the falling birthrate a national priority, and in December promised to come up with “extraordinary measures” to tackle the situation.

However, financial and other inducements are failing to convince couples who cite skyrocketing child-rearing costs and property prices, a lack of well-paid jobs and the country’s cut-throat education system as obstacles to having bigger families. Experts have said that cultural factors are also responsible, including the difficulty working mothers have juggling their jobs with the expectation that they are mainly responsible for household chores and childcare.

South Korea’s major political parties are showcasing policies to stem population decline ahead of April’s national assembly election, including more public housing and easier loans, in the hope of dampening growing alarm that the country is facing “national extinction”. However, it is not the only country in the region to struggle with an ageing population and lack of children.

The number of babies born in Japan in 2023 fell for an eighth straight year to a new low, government data showed this week, a year after the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, warned that the stubbornly low birthrate would soon threaten the country’s ability “to continue to function as a society”.

Moreover, China's population fell for a second consecutive year in 2023, as a record low birth rate and a wave of COVID-19 deaths when strict lockdowns ended accelerated a downturn that will have profound long-term effects on the economy's growth potential. The National Bureau of Statistics said the total number of people in China dropped by 2.08 million, or 0.15 per cent, to 1.409 billion in 2023.

(with inputs from Reuters)

ALSO READ | China's population falls for second consecutive year amid record low birth rate, COVID-19 deaths

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