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South Korea is in a demographic crisis as many have stopped having children

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Yoo Young Yi’s grandmother has given birth to six children. Her mother gave birth to two. Yo don’t want anything.

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“My husband and I love children very much…but there are things we have to sacrifice if we raise children,” said Yu, a 30-year-old financial company employee in Seoul. “So it became a matter of choosing between two things, and we agreed to focus more on ourselves.”

There are many people like Yoo in South Korea who have either chosen not to have children or not to marry. Other developed countries have similar trends, but South Korea’s demographic crisis is much worse.

South Korea’s statistics agency announced in September that the total fertility rate — the average number of children born per woman in her childbearing years — was 0.81 last year. This is the lowest in the world for the third year in a row.

The population shrank for the first time in 2021, prompting concern that the population decline could wreak havoc on the economy – the world’s 10th largest – with labor shortages and an increase in welfare spending as the number of people ages and the number of taxpayers shrinks.

President Yun Seok-yul ordered policymakers to find more effective steps to deal with the problem. He said the fertility rate is declining even though South Korea has spent 280 trillion won ($210 billion) over the past 16 years trying to turn the tide.

Many young South Koreans say that, unlike their parents and grandparents, they do not feel obligated to start a family. They point to the uncertainties of a dismal labor market, expensive housing, gender inequality, social inequality, low levels of social mobility, and the huge expense of raising children in a highly competitive society. Women also complain about a persistent patriarchal culture that forces them to do a lot of childcare while enduring employment discrimination.

“In short, people think our country is not an easy place to live,” said Lee Soo-young, a population policy expert at the Korea Institute of Health and Welfare. “They think their children can’t have a better life than them, so they wonder why they should bother having kids.”

said Choi Yoon-kyung, an expert at the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education. She said South Korea failed to set up such social programs during its explosive economic growth in the 1960s and 1980s.

Yoo, a financial worker in Seoul, said that until she entered college, she desperately wanted to have a baby. But she changes her mind when she sees female office colleagues calling their children from the company restroom to check on them or leaving early when their children are sick. She said her male co-workers don’t have to do this.

“After seeing this, I realized that my focus at work would be greatly diminished if I had children,” Yu said.

Her husband, Jo Jun-Hui, 34, said he doesn’t think having children is necessary. Joe, an interpreter at an IT company, said he wanted to enjoy his life after years of searching for hard work made him “feel like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff.”

There are no official figures on the number of South Koreans who have chosen not to marry or have children. But records from the National Statistics Agency show there were about 193,000 marriages in South Korea last year, down from a peak of 430,000 in 1996. The agency’s data also shows that about 260,600 children were born in South Korea last year, down from 691,200 in 1996, with a peak of one million in 1971. The latest numbers were the lowest since the statistics agency began compiling such data in 1970.

Kang Han Byeol, a 33-year-old graphic designer who decided to stay celibate, believes that South Korea is not a good place to raise children. She cited frustration with gender inequality, the prevalence of digital sex crimes targeting women such as spy cameras hidden in public bathrooms, and a culture that ignores those who push for social justice.

“I can consider marriage when our society becomes healthier and gives equal status to both women and men,” Kang said.

Kang’s 26-year-old roommate Ha Hyunji decides to stay single after her married friends advise her not to get married because most of the housework and childcare fall on them. Ha worries about the huge amount of money she will spend on any tutoring for future children to prevent them from being left behind in a country obsessed with education.

“I can have a fun life without marriage and enjoy my life with my friends,” said Ha, who runs a cocktail bar in Seoul.

Until the mid-1990s, South Korea maintained birth control programmes, which were initially launched to slow the country’s post-war population explosion. The nation distributed free birth control pills and condoms at public medical centers and provided exemptions from military reserve training for men if they had a vasectomy.

United Nations figures show that, on average, South Korean women gave birth to four to six children in the 50s and 60s, three to four in the 70s, and fewer than two in the mid-80s.

South Korea offers a variety of incentives and other support programs for those who give birth to many children. But expert Choi said the fertility rate is declining so fast that no tangible effects can be seen. During a government task force meeting last month, officials said they would soon formulate comprehensive measures to deal with demographic challenges.

South Korean society still frowns upon those who remain single or childless.

In 2021, when Yoo and Jo posted their decision to live without children on their YouTube channel, “You Young You Young,” some posted messages that called them “selfish” and demanded they pay more taxes. The letters also called Gu “sterile” and accused Yu of “gaslighting” her husband.

Lee Sung-jai, a 75-year-old resident of Seoul, said it is “nature’s arrangement” for mankind to marry and have children.

“These days, I see some (unmarried) young women walking with dogs in strollers and saying they are their mothers. Did they give birth to those dogs? They are really crazy,” he said.

Seo Ji Seong, 38, said she is often called a patriot by her elders for having many children, even though she did not give birth to them in the national interest. She is expecting her fifth child in January.

The Seo family recently moved into a rent-free apartment in the city of Anyang, which was jointly provided by the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corporation and the city for families with at least four children. Seo and her husband, Kim Dong Uk, 33, receive another government subsidy, even though it is still economically difficult to raise four children.

Kim said he enjoys seeing each of his children grow up with different personalities and talents, while Seo feels their children’s social skills help as they play and compete with each other at home.

“They are all so cute. That is why I kept giving birth to babies even though it was difficult,” Seo said.

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