Goodbye, South Korea

People who travel to South Korea often say that the most delightful aspect of their visit was the Korean people, who are hospitable, friendly, and “civic minded.” But those notoriously nice people come up way short in one very important aspect: reproducing.

In 1960, South Korea’s fertility rate was 6.0. In 2020, it was 0.84.

This disheartening news comes from Statistics Korea, the agency charged with keeping track of all things South Korean. The year 2020 was the third consecutive year of fertility below 1.0, as 2018 had ended with 0.98, and 2019 with 0.92. That is a 14 percent decline in just three years.

South Koreans are not alone in failing to replace themselves, but they have a dubious distinction in that regard: of all 198 countries, South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world. About that there is no debate. Statistics from South Korea, the United Nations, the World Bank and elsewhere confirm it.

Seoul, South Korea’s largest city, registered a 2020 fertility level of 0.64.  Seoul's population declined 1 percent since the last census, from 10 million to 9.91 million. The last time Seoul had less than 10 million people was in 1987.

South Korea’s Ministry of Interior and Safety announced that nationwide in 2020 there were 275,815 recorded births and 307,764 deaths. The Ministry declared that in 2020 South Korea had met the population death cross, the point where deaths surpass births. For the first time, South Korea’s population decreased. This development, along with a 3.1 percent increase in deaths from the previous year, has justifiably been called a grim milestone.

But this is where all ageing societies are headed. Population decline is clearly on the horizon for most of the industrialized world. South Korea is merely leading the way, joining Japan and much of Eastern Europe with already shrinking populations. Moreover, the trend is accelerating, as each successive generation has fewer people to bear children.

If that isn’t disturbing enough, in December 2020 the Central Bank of Korea predicted that the Covid-19 pandemic would further accelerate falling fertility and the ageing of society, thereby disrupting ordinary life in South Korea even more.

Currently, many do not consider declining fertility problematic. At first it seems as though fewer people will relieve congestion, reduce mankind’s carbon footprint and lighten society’s burdens. Ultimately, however, unabated population decline does become a real problem in part because declining fertility means there are proportionately more elderly, who tend to be non-producers and in need of special care.

South Korea officially became an ageing society in 2017 -- and it is now the world’s most rapidly ageing population. The United Nations reported that in 2020, the South Korean 0-14 age bracket was only 12.3 percent of the population, with 16 percent aged 65 and older. The Bank of Korea projects that South Korea is on track to soon have the highest percentage of elderly of any country: by 2045, 37 percent of the population will be 65 and older. This will increase to at least 47 percent by 2060.

The fast-increasing elderly segment of society draws pensions and requires more social services and medical care. Yet below-replacement fertility means a smaller working-age population to support them. This relationship is described mathematically by the elderly dependency ratio, i.e., the ratio of workers to that of retirees they support. Currently, 3.7 South Korean workers support 10.0 retirees. Projections indicate the ratio will be 1:1 by or before 2060, and it is expected to get worse in the years ahead.  

Still, South Korea is Asia’s fourth largest economy and the 12th largest in the world, with a GDP of US$2.23 trillion. That is a solid achievement for a population of 51.3 million. It is a member in good standing of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of 37 of the most highly developed countries on earth. Yet South Korea is ageing much faster than any of the other 36 OECD members.  Seoul Women’s University professor Dr Jung Jae-hoon has observed that of the OECD countries, “South Korea [at 0.84] is the only country showing an FTR (total fertility rate) below 1.30.”

This low-level fertility rate will stymie South Korea’s economic growth. The current level of elderly benefits it must provide is unsustainable. 

How did this happen?

After the baby boom of the mid-to late 1950s, South Korean females bore an average of 6.0 children by 1960. The economy was expanding at a breakneck pace, recovering from the Korean War and benefitting as a frontline outpost of the American Empire. The country’s population was expanding along with it, so much so that overpopulation became a prime concern. The South Korean government acted boldly to curb the runaway population increase by instituting a national family planning program to provide easy access to contraceptives and abortion. This move accompanied a shift in priorities from large families to a higher standard of living.

As the society became more affluent and consumer oriented, large families were seen as an impediment to prosperity. With rising standards of living, women began to delay marriage, enter higher education and then the work force. It became increasingly difficult for couples to balance careers with family life. For many there was just not enough time for children. Then, in the 1990s, the marriage rate itself significantly declined. These changes followed a pattern similar to that of the rest of the industrialized world.

Now, increasing fertility is a national priority, and the South Korean government is attempting to incentivize young couples to have children. It has already spent well in excess of US$1 billion to do so. As part of this effort, the state covers medical care for infants up to one year of age, provides generous subsidies for day care at state run centres and preschools, mandates a shorter work day for parents with small children, covers more than two thirds of artificial insemination expenses, and has extended worker paternity leave.

However, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Professor Stuart Gietel-Basten has observed that while South Korea spends huge amounts to encourage couples to have more children, "it is now worse because it ignored the bigger context of why people are not having children." What South Korea and many other countries are learning is that prosperity comes with a price. If the South Korean people are as “civic minded” as claimed, perhaps that conscientious mindset can be redirected to ensure their survival.

We can only hope.    


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