South Korea in Population Crisis as Many Stop Having Babies

    01 December 2022

    Many adults in South Korea have chosen either not to have children or not to marry. Similar things are happening in other developed countries, but many consider South Korea's population crisis severe.

    A South Korean government agency announced in September that the total fertility rate reached 0.81 last year. The total fertility rate is the average number of babies born to each woman in their reproductive years. South Korea's fertility rate has been the world's lowest for three years now.

    The population decreased for the first time in 2021. It raised concerns for severe damage to the economy. Some observers expect labor shortages and high spending on retirement payments as the number of older people increases while the number of taxpayers decreases.

    Yoo Young Yi watches her husband Jo Jun Hwi as he speaks during an interview at their home in Seoul, South Korea on October 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
    Yoo Young Yi watches her husband Jo Jun Hwi as he speaks during an interview at their home in Seoul, South Korea on October 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

    President Yoon Suk Yeol has ordered policymakers to find better ways to deal with the problem. The fertility rate, he said, is still decreasing although South Korea spent $210 billion over the past 16 years to increase it.

    Many young South Koreans say that, unlike their parents and grandparents, they do not feel an obligation to have a family. Reasons some say for not having children include: a difficult job market, costly housing, inequality between the sexes, and social inequality.

    Some also say the high cost of raising children in a competitive society is a reason. Some women say men expect them to do much of the childcare while they face discrimination at work.

    Lee So-Young is a population policy expert at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. She said, "People think our country isn't an easy place to live." And she added, "They believe their children can't have better lives than them, and so question why they should bother to have babies."

    Choi Yoon Kyung is an expert at the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education. She said many people who fail to enter good schools and get good jobs feel they have become "dropouts" who "cannot be happy." They feel that way even if they marry and have children because South Korea lacks social spending programs. She said South Korea failed to establish such programs during its economic growth in the 1960s to the 1980s.

    There are no official numbers on how many South Koreans have chosen not to marry or have children. But records from one national agency show there were about 193,000 marriages in South Korea last year. That is a big drop from the highest point of 430,000 in 1996.

    Agency information also says about 260,600 babies were born in South Korea last year, down from 691,200 in 1996. The highest level was 1 million babies in 1971. The recent numbers were the lowest since the agency began collecting such information in 1970.

    Until the mid-1990s, South Korea had birth control programs, which the government started to slow the country's population increase after the Korean War. The government gave out birth control drugs and devices for free at public medical centers. It also offered men exemptions from some required military service if they had a medical operation that prevents fertility.

    United Nations information shows that the average South Korean woman gave birth to about four to six children in the 1950s and ‘60s, three to four in the 1970s, and fewer than two by the mid-1980s.

    South Korea has been offering different incentives and support programs for those who give birth to many children. But Choi said the fertility rate has been falling too fast to see any real effects. During a government meeting last month, officials said they would soon have to propose new measures to deal with the population decrease.

    Yoo Young Yi is a financial worker in Seoul. She said that until she went to college, she strongly wanted a baby. But she changed her mind when she saw female coworkers concerned about their children or leaving early when their children were sick. She said her male coworkers did not have to do this. She said she then thought her ability to work would decrease if she had babies.

    Her 34-year-old husband, Jo Jun Hwi, said he does not think having children is necessary. He works at an information technology company. Jo said he wants to enjoy his life after getting a job made him "feel like I was standing on the edge of a cliff."

    But 38-year-old Seo Ji Seong said she is often called a patriot by older people for having many babies although she has not thought of it that way. She is expecting her fifth baby in January.

    Her husband said he enjoys seeing each of his children growing up, while Seo values their development at home.

    "They are all so cute. That's why I've kept giving birth to babies even though it's difficult," Seo added.

    I'm Gregory Stachel. And I'm Caty Weaver.

    Hyung-Jin Kim reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    obligation – n. something that you must do because it is morally right

    society – n. people in general thought of as living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values

    bother – v. to make an effort to do something

    exemption – n. freedom from being required to do something that others are required to do

    incentive n. something that encourages a person to do something or to work harder

    cliff – n. a high, steep surface of rock, earth, or ice