Worse than worst case: Korea’s population is shrinking faster than predicted

Posted on : 2023-12-18 18:16 KST Modified on : 2023-12-18 18:16 KST
The country is falling short of even the most pessimistic outlooks for birth rates projected over a decade ago
People sit in the waiting room of a hospital in Seoul’s Seongbuk District. (Yonhap)
People sit in the waiting room of a hospital in Seoul’s Seongbuk District. (Yonhap)

Changes in South Korea’s demographic structure, including a low birth rate and aging society, are progressing at a rate far faster than previously predicted, statistics show.

An analysis of Statistics Korea’s future population trend figures over the years showed that the decline in South Korea’s population has grown steeper with time, at rates that frequently exceeded government predictions.

An example of this came in 2011, when Statistics Korea published a report on population trends for 2010–2060 that projected a 2023 total fertility rate (the number of children that a woman is expected to bear over her lifetime) of 1.37. Even its most pessimistic scenario gave a total fertility rate of 1.00 for this year.

But recent projections shared by Statistics Korea predicted a total fertility rate of 0.72 for 2023. That’s 0.28 fewer than even the least optimistic outlook as of 2011. This shows that the decline in birth rates is occurring much faster than previously anticipated.

Korea is expected to see around 230,000 births this year, only barely over half the 449,000 forecast in 2011. The lower threshold of births for 2023 predicted by the statistics agency in 2011 in its most pessimistic forecast was 317,000, but even this has proven high.

At the same time, the proportion of Koreans aged 65 and older out of the population this year hit 18.2%, only 0.1 points higher than the figure predicted in 2011.

There are concerns that if the trend of falling short of predictions continues, the degree of Korea’s population decline could far exceed forecasts. In its recently published population predictions for 2022-2072, Statistics Korea projected that Korea’s population could fall to 36.22 million by 2072, around a 30% drop from the total population as of 2022. The concern is that this prediction, too, will prove overly optimistic.

Current estimates place Korea’s fertility rate for 2022-2072 at dead last among members of the Organisation for Co-operation and Development. By 2072, Korea is expected to be the only member of the OECD with a working-age population that makes up less than 50% of the total population, at 45.8%, while having the highest proportion of the population over the age of 65 among OECD members, at 47.7% — two designations that will be an albatross around its neck.

By Park Jong-o, staff reporter

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