[Column] Even if Korea’s birth rate falls to 0.5

Posted on : 2023-12-12 17:14 KST Modified on : 2023-12-12 17:14 KST
We need to face up to the fact that most policies for addressing low birth rates don’t work when they don’t take a gender equality perspective into account
A single infant can be seen in the nursery at an OBGYN office in Seoul’s Seongbuk District. (Kim Myoung-jin/The Hankyoreh)
A single infant can be seen in the nursery at an OBGYN office in Seoul’s Seongbuk District. (Kim Myoung-jin/The Hankyoreh)
By Kim Young-hee, executive editor

A few years ago, I was shocked to learn from an acquaintance in her 30s that members of a group chat of women in her age group had cheered at the news when South Korea’s quarterly total fertility rate sank below 0.9 for the first time.

“Some members said the government would never consider changing sexist systems even if the rate dropped to 0.5,” she told me.

What does this say about the situation in Korea? I tried my best to understand, but I was also troubled by the thought of women harboring what amounted to feelings of vengefulness toward society.

These days, every announcement of fertility rate figures is met with predictions of South Korea’s “collapse” or warnings like the one in a New York Times column about our situation, which drew analogies to the Black Death in Europe.

As of the third quarter of this year, the total fertility rate was 0.7 — but at the current rate, there’s no ruling out a future where it reaches 0.5.

Over the past 17 years, 332 trillion won has been poured into efforts to combat the declining birth rate, but it has resisted every measure. It’s a situation that cannot be blamed on any one factor.

Indeed, as a woman in my 50s, I can’t really say I’m all that well acquainted with the people actually bearing and raising children. I had two children at a time when the only benefit was two months of maternity leave, never mind anything like childcare leave or child allowances.

While I’ve sarcastically commented that South Korea’s discriminatory systems are ones where “even when women prostrate themselves on the ground, they just want to know if they’ll have kids or not,” there are also times when I think the environment is far better than it was before. This is to say nothing of the higher-ups in the government and companies, most of whom are men in their 50s and older.

After the public preschool enrollment period ended last week, a younger friend of mine posted a Facebook message about how those who lost out in the competitive enrollment were forced to look into private preschools or take their chances with private academies.

“I just find it comical with all the fuss about how much private education costs. It’s a world where it’s hell only for them,” they commented.

In a world where the old has left the picture and new has yet to arrive, people who remain trapped in the past paradigms are now developing “response measures” from their positions in politics and the government. The inevitable result of that is low birth rate policies that ignore a gender equality perspective.

Indeed, gender- and generation-based attitude differences weren’t even mentioned as a variable in the findings of a “low birth rate perception survey” last month by the Presidential Committee on Ageing Society and Population Policy and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

It was in 2009 that the university matriculation rate for women surpassed that of men for the first time, and nearly a decade has passed since various surveys started showing an overwhelming number of respondents viewing dual-income households as entirely sensible. There’s also a stronger sense of the importance of individuals’ lives.

But how much have things really changed in terms of our systems and perceptions that tend to place the burden of child care and child-raising duties primarily on women?

The situation in South Korea today is one where even a story like “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982” — a novel that offers a shocking depiction of the reality of single parenting — gets dismissed as an “overreaction by certain overly sensitive women” or “branded” as feminist in a bad way.

These people are also unaware of how women’s feelings about safety have changed. More and more women have taken to checking social media before they date a man, on the off chance that he might be an Ilbe Storehouse poster. In a world where women are assaulted for having short hair, or where they are exposed to digital sexual abuse on a daily basis, they don’t just think about economic factors and household duties when they think about dating and marriage — they also instinctively think about survival issues.

I’m not trying to say that gender equality is the only solution to the low birth rate problem. But I do think we need to face up to the fact that most policies for addressing the low birth rate don’t work when they don’t take a gender equality perspective into account.

The changes to the notorious “M-shaped” graph of South Korean women’s economic participation rate are instructive. Over the past few years, we’ve seen signs of changes in that pattern, which showed the lowest rates in their early 30s — when they would leave their jobs due to child-raising and other factors — followed by an upward curve as they began finding irregular and other employment in their 40s.

According to an analysis by the Korea Development Institute, the reason for this shift has less to do with an increase in child care activities and more with a decline in or postponement of childbirth.

At one point, some observers cited Western examples in hopefully predicting that a higher level of economic activity among women would translate into a higher fertility rate. That formula has not been working in South Korea.

The fact that a much higher percentage of men, compared to women, cite “financial burden” as a reason for not getting married is not unrelated to sexism. This shows that they are victims of the patriarchal perception that men should be the breadwinner of the family.

Two months ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Anne Kari Hansen Ovind, Norway’s ambassador to South Korea, at the Korea-Japan Women Journalists Forum organized by the Korean Women Journalists Association.

Norway experienced a severe birth rate decline in the 1970s, but the country’s rise to second place on the Gender Equality Index has also caused an upturn in the birth rate.

The driving force behind such a phenomenon, she said, is “the consensus that society should give its all for the cause.”

Is South Korea “giving its all”? Believing that supporting workers with families is the best approach to alleviating women’s burden of care is already proving to have distinct limitations.

The fact that South Korea is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development with a child care utilization rate for infants aged 0 to 2 years that is higher than the employment rate among mothers, has the longest parental leave period, and has seen a 10-fold increase in public spending on family welfare over the past 20 years, only for the country to backtrack, is due to a focus on how care can be more accessible rather than focusing on “who” is taking care of the children.

There should be a major shift to view both men and women as caregivers and laborers, and the concept of a flexible workplace environment must drastically change.

We need to stop the nonsense of emphasizing competition and growth, such as “making all ministries industry-oriented,” to solve housing and education problems.

Maybe the declining birth rate is a challenge that requires a national overhaul. If we’re not willing to do that, we might as well resign ourselves to “disappearance,” as the NY Times worded it.

Can we honestly believe that the government is desperate to solve the declining birth rate problem when it has erased gender equality, which was adopted as the paradigm of the Committee on Ageing Society and Population Policy in 2018 after a decade of national discussion?

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

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