[Guest essay] Korea’s shrinking population is a problem - the gender war could be making it worse

Posted on : 2022-08-06 09:57 KST Modified on : 2022-08-06 09:57 KST
With so many challenges facing us, we need to decide which one we ought to tackle first
Hankyoreh file graphic
Hankyoreh file graphic
Jun Myung-yoon
Jun Myung-yoon

By Jun Myung-yoon, travel writer

UN population statistics show that India will edge out China to become the world’s most populous country in 2023. A UN report estimates that China had a population of 1.426 billion this year, while India had a population of 1.412 billion.

Since March, the Indian government has been boasting that it has the world’s biggest population. But the Chinese government argues that its population is still much bigger when Hong Kong and Taiwan are accounted for.

There was a considerable gap between India and China in terms of the birth rate among fertile women from 2010 to 2020 — 2.2 children for India and 1.7 for China. In other words, trends indicate that, like it or not, China won’t be able to maintain its position as the world’s most populous country for more than a few months.

The Nikkei, a daily newspaper in Japan, bluntly declared last month that Korea’s birth rate of 0.8 children represents a “dead end.” Reading the article was a surreal experience, considering that Koreans — who had predicted with perverse pleasure that Japan was doomed while reporting on its low birth rate just a decade or two ago — had apparently been so absorbed in their neighbor’s troubles that they’d completely disregarded their own.

The birth rate is directly linked to the working-age population two or three decades down the road. India and China’s rivalry over who has the world’s largest population may look pointless to us, but in the end, government welfare is only sustainable as long as somebody is working and paying taxes on their income.

Koreans are proud of their national health insurance and pension programs, but those wells would soon run dry without a workforce to prop them up. When the workforce shrinks, tax revenue declines, and the treasury isn’t adequate to make up the difference.

A while back, I went to another city to attend a debate about Korea’s shrinking countryside. Once I was out of Seoul, the stories I heard from locals were shocking.

While I’d heard that universities struggle more the farther away they are from Seoul, actually visiting the countryside gave me a tangible sense of the desperation of people working for those universities. Not only are university departments being merged or closed because of the lack of incoming students, but professors have to make the rounds of local high schools to ask career advisors to recruit students for their programs. That’s already taken for granted in the countryside, although people in the capital region remain unaware.

The math is quite simple. In 2021, 260,500 babies were born in Korea. If that trend continues, we’re talking about a population growth of 5.21 million people over the next 20 years. But deaths have already begun to exceed births this year. That means the population is already in decline.

Even if the birth rate were to dramatically rebound right now — something that’s hardly about to happen — it would take at least 25 years before those babies could join the working age population. The takeaway here is that Korea’s current welfare structure will soon collapse.

We only have a few more years to feel that patriotic tingle about Korea finally becoming an advanced country. According to the National Assembly Budget Office, the government has spent nearly 200 trillion won (US$1.54 billion) on programs aimed at countering the low birth rate over the past 16 years, since 2006. Even though annual spending on those programs has reached 40 trillion won in recent years, the birth rate has fallen from 1.052 in 2017 to 0.81 in 2021.

The time has come to ponder where everything started to go wrong, and for the government to emphatically convey the current crisis to the public. For Korea, the population collapse might be even more serious than the climate crisis.

It’s fortunate that the new administration has promised to reform the pension system. The government may not have a solution to population collapse, but it seems to have the guts to start preparing for one of our imminent crises.

But as was illustrated by the recent debate about lowering the age when students start elementary school, the administration seems to toss out policies the way one might lob a live grenade inside an army base, without bothering to persuade the public of its virtues.

While I was working on this column, I heard someone make the following observation.

“The pointless thing about spending all this money and making all these programs is that men and women despise each other nowadays. People have to see each other if they’re going to get married and have kids. But they’re preoccupied with hating each other.”

With so many challenges facing us, we need to decide which one we ought to tackle first.

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

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles