[Column] Why party pledges for combatting Korea’s low birth rate miss the mark

Posted on : 2024-01-25 17:21 KST Modified on : 2024-01-25 17:21 KST
Blindly throwing cash at Koreans to encourage them to have more kids is unlikely to change anything when systemic issues remain
Han Dong-hoon, the interim leader of the ruling People Power Party, announces at an event in Seoul on Jan. 18 that low birth rate countermeasures are at the top of his party’s platform going into the April general election. (Yonhap)
Han Dong-hoon, the interim leader of the ruling People Power Party, announces at an event in Seoul on Jan. 18 that low birth rate countermeasures are at the top of his party’s platform going into the April general election. (Yonhap)

By Hwang Bo-yeon, editorial writer

When South Korea’s birth rate fell to 0.78, it soon became the talk of the town among demographers. In 1994, five years after the reunification of Germany, the birth rate in former East Germany was 0.77. In other words, in 2022, South Korea had the same bottoming-out birth rate as a region wracked by uncertainty over the collapse of its existing state system. 

In his book “Population, Future, Co-existence,” professor Cho Young-tae of Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Health, writes, “A fertility rate of zero has been considered a virtually impossible number in demography throughout human history, only caused by epidemics, war, or the collapse of nations. However, South Korea is showing that such a number is indeed possible.”

South Korea’s birth rate has been unable to rebound since falling below the 1.0 mark in 2018, when the rate slumped to 0.98, making Korea the only member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to have a sub-1.0 total fertility rate.

If this keeps up, South Korea’s population is expected to decrease by 30 percent over the next 50 years, rapidly leading to the country being declared a super-aged society. This prospect prompted a columnist at the New York Times to point out that South Korea’s birth rate signifies “a depopulation exceeding what the Black Death delivered to Europe in the 14th century.”

With the April general election looming close on the horizon, parties on both ends of the spectrum are putting policies addressing low birth rates at the forefront of their platforms.

Seeing the country’s two major political parties both work on a national-level agenda is encouraging, as can be said about the tangible efforts that are being made to improve the effectiveness of such policies. Pledges to make fathers take one mandatory month of maternity leave (proposed by the conservative People Power Party) or to ensure that applications for parental leave are accepted automatically (proposed by the PPP and center-left Democratic Party), are examples.

These measures take into account the reality that many women have to shoulder all parental responsibility alone, without having the freedom to use parental leave as they wish.

Unorthodox policies pledging monetary support to ease the financial burden of raising children, such as a “marriage and childbirth support grant” (proposed by the Democratic Party) have also been brought up.

Yet none of these myriad pledges have been met with much enthusiasm by Koreans. Why is that the case?

The birth rate needed to sustain the current population size is 2.1. Any number under that is considered a society with a low birth rate, while anything below 1.3 is a signal of a society with a “lowest-low” birth rate.

After a population policy that encouraged families to have fewer children (but to “raise them well”) ended in 1996 after having been in place for over 30 years, South Korea earned the label of “low-birth-rate society” in 1983.

It was only in 2005, after the birth rate dropped to 1.08 in 2002, pushing the country into lowest-low birth rate territory, that the government rushed to launch what it calls the “Basic Plan for Low Fertility and Population Ageing.”

To address the country’s poor child care infrastructure, various ministries and agencies churned out a myriad of countermeasures. Though it would fluctuate from time to time, at that point the birth rate looked like it would remain relatively stable, at least until 2015.

However, the birth rate has been plummeting ever since. With tens of trillions of won wasted on ineffective policies, there emerged calls from within the government and more broadly across society to address the problems at the heart of Korea’s low birth rates. 

This was the background that enabled the government’s policies to evolve, little by little, with the Park Geun-hye administration being the first to include support for young Koreans on employment and housing fronts in its policies to rectify the low birth rate.

The Moon Jae-in administration that followed was the first to raise the issue of gender equality in connection with this societal problem, emphasizing the need to pay attention to the hardships faced by women instead of uncritically encouraging more people to simply have more kids.

Despite such progress, the proposals currently being advocated by the ruling and opposition parties in relation to the low birth rate problem have failed to take further steps forward.

Monetary assistance, which will be provided on a differential basis depending on the number of children a family has, will not be enough to turn the hearts of the public if the burden of child care for parents who work full time is not alleviated by abolishing policies that enable and encourage long working hours.


Lee Jae-myung, the leader of South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party, announces his party’s policy package for low birth rates on Jan. 18. (Yonhap)
Lee Jae-myung, the leader of South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party, announces his party’s policy package for low birth rates on Jan. 18. (Yonhap)


Right now, both parties are running into this situation with their hands over their eyes, rushing to do something, anything for young voters without knowing what it is they should be providing. 

In the words of Lee Kwan-hu, a professor of political science at Konkuk University, “It’s like putting down a red carpet to a restroom furnished with marble and jewelry, adorning the way with signs and service areas, all for a group of people who don’t even need to use the restroom.”

Why, when there is such a huge disparity between policies and reality, should we focus on putting all our efforts into polishing existing systems even more?

The results of the Ikea Life at Home Report 2023, which looks at data from 38 countries, provide significant insight. Compared to other countries across the globe, Korea had the highest rate of respondents who chose “spending time by myself” as what brings them the most joy in their life at home, while it had the lowest rate of respondents who chose “laughing with people around me” in the same category. These findings reek of the exhaustion of this “every woman for herself” era in which Koreans must fight to survive the competition of everyday life as individuals. 

Kim Eun-ji, a researcher at the Korean Women’s Development Institute, stresses that in the eyes of young Koreans, getting married and having kids are seen as “risks that threaten one’s survival as a worker.” According to her, it’s “time to reflect on the lessons from Western societies that show that once a society adapts to women’s new roles, new family equilibria emerge, and birth rates bounce back.”

At this point, it’s questionable whether phrases like “low birth rate countermeasures” are really what Korea needs. Wouldn’t it be enough to simply put forth a vision for making our society one in which people are happy living? 

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

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