There is hope for boosting fertility rates – even in desperately low South Korea

For years now, South Korea has been a poster child for extreme low fertility. Its total fertility rate (TFR) tumbled to 0.72 in 2023 and continues to fall. (To maintain its population, a country needs to have a TFR of 2.1.) Even more shocking is that not a single province managed to break the TFR level of 1. The country’s “highest” fertility rate is in the rural province of Jeolla-namdo -- only 0.97.

What are Korea’s churches doing about this?

After all, South Korea is the second largest Christian missionary-sending country in the world after the United States. There are tens of thousands of churches dotted around the country; Koreans are known for their zeal across the world; most churches still follow conservative, even fundamentalist theologies.

And yet …  

Unhappily, Korean Christians have shown little divergence in terms of marriage and birth rates from their non-Christian counterparts. Several studies have shown that, Korean Protestants actually led the fertility decline. Both Catholics and Protestants have had fewer children than Buddhists and secular Koreans since the 1980s. When asked about whether or not women have a societal obligation to have children in a 2024 Pew Research Centre survey, more Korean Buddhists (43%) than Christians (33%) said that women do have an obligation.

In the midst of this bizarre dissonance between religiosity and low fertility, which is not seen elsewhere (as religious Christians normally have more children than the rest of the population), some Korean churches are stepping up their game and offering a glimmer of hope that Koreans can be coaxed off the primrose path to self-extinction.

The 303 Project (303 프로젝트) – a Korean Quiverfull?

Quiverfull is a Christian movement which first caught the eye of the mainstream media with “19 Kids and Counting, a reality TV show starring the Duggar family. It was going strong until sex scandals hit the founder and the Duggars themselves.

In recent years, the American pro-natalist movement has taken a techno-optimist turn. Its best-known representatives are Simone and Malcolm Collins, who feature frequently on news sites and TV shows, and starred at a recent pro-natalist conference. They describe themselves as atheists. Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has fathered 11 children with three women, is a fertility evangelist who is not known to be religious.

A couple of years ago, a promoter of pro-natalist values emerged in South Korea. Lee Byeong-cheon, a missionary from Keunteo Church, a small missionary-sending church in Busan, the country’s second largest city, found a new calling. He used to evangelise on university campuses in China before the Covid pandemic but China’s increasingly repressive religious environment made his mission impossible.

In an interview with CTS, one of Korea’s main Christian television stations, Lee said that he had felt called to action when he saw that Korea’s fertility rate had plunged below 0.8. He decided to become a missionary to his fellow countrymen promoting marriage and children. He calls his campaign the 303 Project.

The aims of the 303 Project are to encourage marriage before 30 and having at least 3 children. Lee was inspired by Eastern European and American Protestant missionaries in China who often had six or seven children. (These are probably migrant Ukrainian and Russian Pentecostal or Baptist churches in the US.)

Lee and his wife have four children who have already pledged that they will marry and have children early. He then started a 303 Club, in which couples as well as single people pledge to strive towards the 303 goals. He has written a book promoting the value of early marriage and having several children; he is often featured on Christian news sites, Christian TV stations; and large prayer gatherings.

Lee’s vision is very similar to that of Quiverfull. He wants to form a core of fervent and fertile believers who will eventually raise the fertility rate of Korea to 3.0. This would give Korea the highest ranking TFR in the OECD (it currently is the lowest), ahead of Israel. He frequently quotes the Biblical verse which gave Quiverfull its name: “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them” (Psalm 127:4–5).

His campaign seems to be getting traction. Hundreds of churches are promoting his message and pastors and young couples have become activists. According to the newspaper Kookmin Ilbo, Pastor Lee’s congregants at the Keunteo church had an average of 2.4 children last year, triple the national average.

Unrealistic? Dreamy? Given Koreans’ missionary zeal, it is possible that the 303 Project will catch on. Something has to happen, or Korea will go down the gurgler.  


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Dangjin Dongil Church

Lee Byeong-cheon has some competition. For more than 20 years, the Dangjin Dongil church in the country’s rural southwest has provided daycare and after-school childcare service at half the standard cost. Unlike municipal daycare centres, they are open until 10pm. There are several in the city.

According to TV interviews with the pastor at Dongil church, Lee Su-hoon, he foresaw the fertility crisis decades ago and decided to create a childcare service to create a culture within his congregation that “it takes a village to raise a child”. When couples think about having children, they are confident that the church will support them.

According to a recent news report in April 2024, the mayor of Dangjin Oh Seong-hwan, a city of 100,000, estimated that 12.4 precent of all newborns are from members of the Dongil church. They account for the fact that Dangjin had the highest TFR in South Chuncheong Province at 1.03 (compared to the national average of 0.72 and the provincial average of 0.84). Of course, 1.03 is still abysmal – but in South Korea, anything above 1 is high.

Dongil church has inspired other Korean churches to provide budget childcare for members at reduced cost by making use of church facilities which usually stand idle during weekdays.  

As Korea continues to sleepwalk towards extinction, some Korean Christian leaders are stepping up and taking action. These two initiatives are only a drop in the bucket, but they offer hope that increasing fertility rates is not impossible, even in South Korea. 

Can these initiatives be exported? Tell us in the comments box!  

William Huang is an avid researcher of China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis. A product of China's one-child policy, it was only when he went overseas to study that he realised just how much damage this policy has done to the Chinese nation and his generation.

Image: Bigstock  




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