2016 saw lowest number of births ever recorded in South Korea

Posted on : 2017-02-23 17:29 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Birth rate still low despite government efforts, and South Korea’s population likely to start declining soon

Last year, 406,300 babies were born in South Korea, the lowest number ever recorded. As part of the country’s low birth rate, the number of babies born first fell below 500,000 in 2002, and now it’s on the verge of dipping below 400,000. The natural population increase - calculated by subtracting the number of deaths from the number of births - also decreased by more than 20% over the past year.

According to data about the number of births and deaths in 2016 released by Statistics Korea on Feb. 22, 406,300 babies were born last year, which was 32,100 fewer than 2015 (down 7.3%). Through the 1980s and 1990s, the number of babies born was in the 600,000 and 700,000 range, but in the 2000s, this began to sharply decrease. The number slipped below the 500,000 range between 2001 and 2002, dropping from 550,000 to 492,000, and decreased to 406,000 last year. Given these trends, the number of babies born this year is unlikely to remain above 400,000.

The biggest factor is the low birth rate. Last year, the total fertility rate (the average number of babies each woman is expected to deliver during the course of her life) decreased to 1.17, down 0.07, or 5.6%, from the previous year (1.24). This was the lowest level in seven years. Even though the government has spent 80 trillion won (more than US$70 billion) addressing the low birthrate over the past 10 years, South Korea has remained a “lowest-low fertility rate country” for 16 years in a row. The OECD defines the lowest-low fertility rate as a total fertility rate of 1.30 or below. From the time South Korea’s birth rate dropped to 1.297 in 2001 until the present, it has been unable to shed the label of a lowest-low fertility rate country. The total fertility rate, which is at the very bottom of OECD member states, is the highest in Sejong (1.82), South Jeolla Province (1.47) and Jeju Island (1.43) and the lowest in Seoul (0.94) and Busan (1.10).

“Since the decrease in the babies born last year was similar to the number born in one month of the previous year, this basically means a month’s worth of babies has disappeared,” said Lee Ji-yeon, head of the population trends section at Statistics Korea. “The fact that 47% of people in their early 30s, the ideal period for marriage, are unmarried, and that there are fewer people in this cohort, representing the children of the baby boomers, than among those born between 1979 and 1982, known as the ‘baby boom echo generation,’ has contributed to the decrease in the birth rate.”

As South Koreans wait longer to get married and have children, the percentage of older mothers (those who are at least 35 years old) has more than doubled over the past 10 years to one in four. Such mothers accounts for 26.3% of the total, up 2.4 percentage points from the previous year. The average age of childbirth also increased by 0.2 years over the past year to 32.4 years.

Under the influence of the low birth rate and the aging society, the natural population increase last year (the number of births minus the number of deaths) fell to 125,300, down by 22.8% (37,200) year in year. This resulted from the combination of the lowest number of births (406,300) and the highest ever number of deaths (281,000). The large increase in the number of deaths mostly occurred among elderly people, those who are 80 and older (5.9%).

The natural increase in the population was 630,000 as recently as 1981, but this decreased to the 200,000 range between 2002 and 2012 and plunged from 160,000 between 2014 and 2015 to the 120,000 range last year. This means that it is not long now before the population will naturally decline, when immigration factors are not taken into account. Natural population increase has already gone negative in North Gyeongsang Province, Gangwon Province, North Jeolla Province, and South Jeolla Province. 

By Kim So-youn, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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