The South Korean conundrum: an ageing society desperate for babies

South Korea is the global birth dearth poster child. A demographic basket case. Every year it claims the record for the world’s lowest fertility rate, now 0.78. Statistics Korea projects a rate of 0.65 by 2025. The capital Seoul, home to one in five South Koreans, rings in at 0.59.

When South Korea was founded in 1948, the population was just over 20 million. It peaked in 2020 at over 51 million, declining since. Projections have South Korea shrinking more than 50 percent by century’s end.

But numbers cannot describe the struggles of an ageing society. The government has offered generous incentives for families to have children, but so far no luck.

Government planning

As post-World War II prosperity enveloped East Asia, South Korea’s government saw expanding population as a hindrance to economic growth. In 1962, a family planning agency was established to promote birth control. Contraceptives were distributed. Abortion was legalised in 1973. Favourable housing loans and other incentives were provided to parents who got sterilised. In 1983, the government suspended maternal health insurance for women with three or more children and abolished education tax deductions for folks with two or more young’uns.

Today, the government has reversed course and is doing its utmost to encourage larger families.

In February, the City of Seoul unveiled an ambitious annual $1.35 billion (1.8 trillion won) “birth encouragement” project. Some particulars:

  • Subsidies for fertility treatments
  • Childcare benefits raised from $520/month to $750 for parents with babies under one year old; $375/month after the first birthday
  • Small business incentives for family-friendly workplaces
  • Vouchers for round-the-clock childcare
  • Free transportation from daycare to school and back
  • Expanded prenatal and working-parent homecare services
  • A pilot project (100 families) to provide immigrant domestic helpers

These incentives, aka “parent pay”, fulfil President Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign pledge to do something about flagging fertility. To his credit, the president has not minced words, calling South Korea’s demographic crisis “a national calamity”.


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All this is great social planning. But will it work? Koreans are sceptical. While Seoul’s “birth encouragement” initiative is impressive in scope, Koreans have heard it all before. However, as falling fertility is now deemed a national emergency, the private sector has entered the fray. 

Corporate initiatives

Earlier this month, the construction giant Booyung Group announced that it is paying $75,000 (100 million won) to employees each time their family has a baby.

Booyung’s 84-years-young Chairman Lee Joon-keun unabashedly advocates “direct financial support” to families. To date, Booyung has paid a total of $5.25 million to employees who have welcomed 70 babies. They have the resources. Aside from commercial projects, the company has built nearly 300,000 homes since its founding in 1983.

Under the Booyung plan, employees with three or more children will have the option of receiving a benefit of $225,000 in either cash or rental housing, provided the government makes land available for construction of these units.

According to Mr Lee:

If Korea’s birth rate remains low, the country will face the crisis of extinction in 20 years.

The low birth rate results from financial burdens and difficulties in balancing work and family life, so we decided to take such a drastic measure.

I hope we would get recognised as a company that contributes to encouraging births… and worries about the country’s future. 

Mr Lee also advocates tax-exempt status for childbirth incentive programs so donations to them can be tax-deductible.

Other South Korean companies have birth incentives: LG Electronics offers two years of paternal leave and time off for fertility treatment. POSCO, a steel company, increased opportunities for employees with children to work from home. HD Hyundai offers $14,000 in preschool expenses for each employee’s child for three years.

Construction management HamniGlobal’s Chairman Kim Jong-hoon announced that any mother who gives birth to a third child will immediately be promoted to the next-highest position.

The chairman has a philosophy that people who give birth to children are heroes in this era. He believes that the way to save Korea, which is suffering from a declining birth rate, is to have more children.

HanmiGlobal… pays 1 million won for the first birth, 2 million won for the second, 5 million won for the third and 10 million won for the fourth. It also provides free fertility treatments for employees who have difficulty conceiving.

Samsung Electronics allows new mothers, when they return to work, to work from home.  Boosting fertility is now a national priority. The precedent-setting Booyung initiative is leading the way.

Senior defence force?

South Korea’s low birthrate “directly impacts defence manpower”. The Straits Times headline sums it up: “Women, old men in military? South Korea debates solutions for looming conscript shortfall.”

South Korea maintains a 500,000 active-duty defence force. Able-bodied men are obliged to serve at least 18 months of military service. The “dwindling demographic of young male conscripts” has caused a manpower shortage. What to do? Chung-An University Professor Choi Young-jin has proposed a “senior army” of men between 55-75 years of age:

Drafting women into the army is not wise for a country that should make its utmost effort to encourage births.

Currently, there are about 6.91 million men aged between 55 and 75, a significant number of whom are prepared to take up arms for the country once again.

Korea’s Reform Party advocates women serving in the military as firefighters and police. Expect a plethora of new ideas as South Korea fights for its survival. 

South Korea rose from the strife of the Korean War to become an “Asian Tiger” economy. What if the same resolve that brought that about was directed to pro-family purposes?

South Korea is considered a wealthy country. Really? I am reminded of Don Michael Corleone's words in The Godfather: Part III: “The only wealth in this world is children.”

Louis T. March has a background in government, business, and philanthropy. A former talk show host, author, and public speaker, he is a dedicated student of history and genealogy. Louis lives with his family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Image: Pexels


Showing 19 reactions

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  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-02-24 10:35:23 +1100
    Jurgen Siemer, Paul Bunyan,

    We should not underestimate the problems caused by an ageing and declining population. They are likely to be severe and we’ll handle them badly. There will be suffering.

    But it’s still more tractable than the problems caused by a population that expands indefinitely.

    I would have hoped for the drop in fertility to be more gentle and evenly spread – say a global 1.8-1.9, just below replacement, with not much variation between countries.

    But, on balance, the drop in fertility is a good news story.

    In my lifetime I saw population increase more than three-fold. If I live another decade or so it will have almost quadrupled. To think this sort of growth can continue indefinitely is lunacy.

    When I was born more than half the Earth was wilderness. Now it’s less than a quarter. Whole ecosystems are under threat.

    If you believe God gave humans “dominion” over the Earth I think it’s fair to say he must be disappointed in our performance. Obviously his hiring practices are in need of urgent review.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-02-22 17:53:03 +1100
    The planet cannot support 3 trillion people, no matter what these gurus say.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-02-22 17:41:40 +1100
    … And more guru stuff.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-02-22 17:18:22 +1100
    Mr Siemer, we can’t simply increase our population ad infinitum. We’re already seeing global warming reduce harvests.

    Desertification is worsening, and we can’t grow crops in sand.

    So unless and until we develop technology that will turn deserts back to grassland, we’re on a rapid collision course with disaster.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-02-22 17:12:55 +1100
    Paul, I am sorry, having to point out this:

    Because you recommended to read the paper from the club of Rome, Limits to Growth, I took the time and read it, but not completely yet.

    Have you compared some of their predictions, made around 20 years ago, with how reality, for instance food supply/consumption has actually developed? Obviously not!

    The Club of Rome? A total failure!

    You need to start thinking, not just memorizing what some gurus present to you.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-02-21 19:25:45 +1100
    Mr Siemer, if developed nations had birth rates as high as Africa, it would solve the healthcare problem. But not in the way you think.

    If we ran out of food, people would stop dying of old age and diseases. They would instead die from starvation and homicide (as desperate people go to desperate lengths to survive). I suppose doctors would have to be drafted into the police force to compensate.

    I also highly recommend reading The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study.

    Even if children are the “only wealth,” it would be pointless to have them unless they can be cared for and given lives worth living, as free from discomfort and suffering as possible.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-02-21 17:35:14 +1100
    Paul, the last 5 years in life are those with very high health care cost. It is almost a fact of nature. Health care costs are basically financed from the incomes of the same years. There almost no reserves in the system. In Germany, for instance, there is actually a deficit, otherwise the state budgets would not have to subsidize health care on top.

    This is the expected result of having 1.5 instead of 2.2 children per women for decades. The younger generation is simply too small, which explains why per Capita obligatory health care premiums plus co-payments plus out of pocket payments have been exploding.

    We also realize that immigration is not the solution, immigration is simply to expensive and ineffective with regard to the problem.

    So what are your solutions?
    - no more children and 100% of women in the workforce,
    - less vacation longer more working hours per week,
    - expropriation of big corporations, farms and multifamily houses so that all profits and rents go to the state or increasing the income taxes to 95%, and
    - make the state beaurocracy even bigger, because this scenario needs a big police force and internal surveillance infrastructure?

    Any other proposals that look less like the socialist apocalypse, that only leads to a slow extinction?

    By the way, Cuba has tried these solutions.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-02-21 10:56:50 +1100
    Paul Bunyan

    You may well be right that financial considerations are the reason for the birth dearth. In fact, I would be surprised if it was not a major factor.

    But I’m pretty sure there are cultural factors at play as well. There may also be biological factors such as obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and endocrine disrupting chemicals at play.

    It follows that there is probably no simple solution. Just giving people money to have babies on its own probably won’t cut it. At least so far it hasn’t. I don’t think any government has tried harder than Orban’s in Hungary with so far underwhelming results.

    In fact my guess is you cannot raise fertility without addressing issues such as obesity, sedentary life styles and, in the US, access to healthcare.

    Note that Mr. March loves to use words like “woke” but never focuses on real world issues.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-02-21 09:35:52 +1100
    Mr Siemer, I think we should get back to the topic of demographic decline.

    Unexpected healthcare expenses are the most likely reason for bankruptcy in the US. And since children are extremely expensive, they’re another cause of bankruptcy. Children also hurt a couple’s income, which is another reason for declining birth rates.

    You can’t just tell people it’s their duty to have more children and expect them to do it.
    In any case, million of children would love to be adopted, but many people would rather have biological children.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-02-21 02:06:26 +1100
    Paul, experience tells that big wealth is often build in 1 generation, and lost in the following 3 generations. There are if course exceptions, eg if your family originates from Frankfurt and you are a co-owner of the FED and the Bank of England. But I do not complain, I simply say: End the Fed!

    But I have another example and question: the green/social democrat government of Germany is subsidizing a new Intel-chip plant in Germany with 10 billion Euro. Biden’s government in the US is in negotiations with Intel for a similar commitment.

    Intel is a profitabel company.

    The subsidies are basically financed by debt, the middle classes in Germany and the US will inherit.

    Would we be surprised if the next generation of Intel chips would have built in an open door for the CIA into the Chip-design?

    If we in Germany would not live in a centralised big state, but in a conglomerate of many small states, like it had been for the 1000 years before Bismarck, each of the small states would simply not have the financial capabilities to give away such a large sum.

    Which shows that small states are a better protection against corruption and the waste of resources.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-02-20 21:05:36 +1100
    Mr Siemer, capitalism has ruined society because of inherited wealth. Before the industrial revolution, there was a stronger sense of community, and few people were left in poverty. Unemployment was rare.

    Capitalism allows wealth to pass through generations, creating a class of people who can live lives of luxury without lifting a finger or even gaining an education.

    Do you want to know where all the money went? Most of it went to fossil fuel companies and the ultra-rich (since they’re the ones who fund election campaigns). Eliminating poverty, crime and misery isn’t on the government’s priority list.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-02-20 20:52:03 +1100
    Steven, thanks for the compliment.

    If you cannot see the elephant in the room, try to estimate the percentage of mandatory deductions from an average salary income today with that 30 years ago in your country. Try to compare similar jobs. Do include all indirect taxes such as vat, gasoline taxes etc.

    You will be in shock, when you see the result.

    Compare the national sovereign debt with that from 30 years ago. You will be in shock again.

    Look out the window: how is the infrastructure in your country, how schools and the army. I assume not really looking good. So: where did all the money go?

    Big government does create corruption, because big and smaller companies are drawn to the politicians in the central government or the mayor of your city, if your business is more local. Why: because big government politicians can limit competition and allow monopolies.

    Big banks and Companies love that, they really do. You know that their investments in politicians tend to be very very profitable.

    Finally, look at the purchasing power of one unit if your local currency?

    Has it lost appr. 75%? Well: where did it go to? Who took it?

    What is the solution to the big-government problem? An even bigger and more powerful government?


    The solution: Small governments that compete with each other by attracting productive citizens and companies through providing them with a stable, secure place to live where taxes are low.

    One root cause of all the mess in our corrupt west is the big and open secret, that our money is NOT an honest means for financial transaction anymore due to money printing, in which, by the way, banks participate. But that is a longer story for another day.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-02-20 16:55:11 +1100
    Wow Jurgen, you’ve really drunk the Kool Aid.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-02-20 16:53:56 +1100
    I don’t see how Booyung Group’s unilateral baby bonus can work. It will simply attract people who want to have babies leaving the group at a competitive cost disadvantage with its rivals without doing much to raise the overall birth rate.

    The trouble with the birth dearth is that everyone is viewing it through their ideological/religious lenses. This makes it hard to get a real understanding of what’s driving it and what, if anything, can be dome to reverse it.

    My guess. There is no one measure that will change it and no one knows what, if anything, will work. It’ll be a matter of trial and error. Unfortunately governments cannot withstand too much error in their trials.

    However, I stand by my prediction. By 2070 most babies will come to maturity in artificial wombs. Many will be raised by corporations. The idea of an actual pregnancy will be regarded as “quaint”.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-02-20 05:06:13 +1100
    Paul, we are not living in a world ruined by capitalism.

    We are living in a world ruined by big givernments, their big debts and Central Bank money printing, which is basically just another form of acquiring even more debts, sharing that with a few financial institutions, money printing-debt which is repaid by the commons through purchasing power losses due to inflation/generally rising price level.

    I repeat: we are NOT living in an honest capitalist world where the private ownership of goods and money is protected, and where privacy is respected. Even this little conversation is monitored by various state-agencies.

    Our current economic system is based on lies, and it therefore is developing on a path towards bankruptcy, financially and morally. I have no doubt about that.

    We need to demand that truth be honoured – in everything!

    Remember the one who called himself truth, quote: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”?
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-02-19 17:27:33 +1100
    My apologies. I typed “healthcare” where I meant to type “childcare.”
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-02-19 17:27:03 +1100
    If half of the working-age population is providing healthcare, they won’t have time to have children of their own.

    The global population is eventually going to decline. African countries, which suffer from excessively high birth rates, also suffer from brain drain – many of their citizens are moving to greener pastures.

    This is hardly surprising in a world ruined by capitalism and increasingly devoid of compassion.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2024-02-19 17:15:07 +1100
    75% (my estimate) of South Koreans believe in technology, progress and self- fulfillment, but not in God, the country is highly urbanized and highly centralized.

    Most south Korean couples argue that they have to work both to be able to pay the rent. Probably correct.

    If you live in Seoul you cannot allow your child to just play outside. It is not a village, too dangerous.

    So 1 child maximum, and this child gets a training and education program to become the next noble prize winner.

    I guess this sounds familiar to most of you.

    The children of the revolution against God are not “eaten” by the revolution, as we say in Germany.

    They, the members of the church of human progress, simply decided to almost disappear within 3 generations.

    Sounds absurd but that is the reality, not only in South Korea
  • Louis T. March
    published this page in The Latest 2024-02-19 16:54:28 +1100