South Korea’s Falling Population

When nations undergo a massive economic overhaul, the effects of rapid growth are far from only financial; they often have wider demographic impacts that one may not expect.

South Korea is no stranger to this phenomenon. Over the past few generations, the country has gone to great lengths to facilitate rapid industrialisation and reap international trade benefits, helping the region’s economy leap to one of the largest in the world and the fourth largest in Asia.[1] However, such breakneck growth, while spurring on living standards and building a promising future, has also led to what is referred to as the “demographic transition”[2], a period characterised by population swell, decline and then eventual stabilization as nations grow. Combined with changing social attitudes to marriage and children, South Korea is facing quite the conundrum; a swiftly ageing populace and the birth rate lower than the death rate.

Census figures released at the beginning of 2021 show that the population of the country tumbled down to 51,829,023 by the end of December, down from 20,838 from the previous year[3]. Data reported by the Yonhap news agency shows that South Korea recorded 275,815 births in 2020, with 307,764 deaths. Additionally, those aged 60 and above consist of 24% of the total population. Such demographic issues are also not chalked up to the urban-rural divide that tends to characterise regions that have recently reached great economic heights; the population in Seoul fell by just over 60,000 in 2020[4].

This article aims to explore some of the key reasons behind such a considerable demographic change which could also be a threat, analyse implemented policies targeted at achieving population stability, and cover the consequences that could arise from a sustained refusal to address population decline and imbalance.

Declining birth and death rates often point to looming changes in the way a populace looks at the world around them and how they make decisions i.e. demographic changes indicate wider systemic problems (in the case of South Korea) in a nation’s economy and social attitudes, particularly those towards the realm of the fiduciary; family planning and child-rearing[5]. In South Korea, the causes are three-fold: a rapidly unfolding economic downturn, pushback towards patriarchal values, and extraordinary lifespan spurred on by the improved health sector.

Something notable is that a growing number of young South Koreans are choosing to remain single. When they do marry, they tend to do so much later in life and have only one child or none at all.

This trend is rooted in an economic downturn that has disproportionately affected young adults, who report feeling intimidated by soaring housing prices and rising unemployment. According to Lee Sang-lin, a researcher at the government-funded Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, young South Koreans “have no confidence that their lives will get better in the future.”[6]

To deal with the rising costs that have served to impede South Koreans’ faith in their ability to care for a child, President Moon Jae-in introduced a new package of government inducements in late 2020, offering monthly allowances of 300,000 won, or about 20,000 INR, for every newborn and infant up to the age of 1 starting in 2022. Expectant couples would get a 2 million won cash bonus (about 1.3 lakh INR) starting this year, along with improved medical facilities and other benefits[7].

The issue is that decreased faith in the future and decreased economic stability is not the only factor discouraging family building; South Korea is also suffering from a multitude of other trends that provide impetus to not have a traditional family.

South Korea, for all its economic development, has been a witness to a new generation of women, seeking to rebel against the country’s “deeply embedded sexism”[8], are opting for higher levels of education, well-established careers instead of the pursuit of a relationship and child-rearing that is expected of them. This is a phenomenon reflected in South Korea’s fertility rate which, at 1.1 children per average woman (as compared to the global average of 2.5), is the lowest in the world[9]. This means that the nation’s replacement rate, the point where children born is equal to the number of elder deaths, is well below where it should be to stabilise its population.

The seemingly collective decision to have fewer children and to forgo romantic relationships has led to the growth of what has been dubbed the “Sampo Generation”[10], meaning to give up three things: relationships, marriage, and children. Statistics reflect the dramatic culture shift: marriage rates among South Koreans of childrearing age – both men and women – have plummeted over the last four or five decades. In the 2015 census, fewer than a quarter (23%) of South Korean women aged 25 to 29 said they were married, down steeply from 90% in 1970[11].

The government has historically found it difficult to boost the country’s birth rate, the nation is now saying that it will focus on coping with and mitigating the effects of population decline, rather than trying to stop it, by implementing a “two-track” approach of encouraging birth and adapting the economy to a shrinking and rapidly ageing populace[12].

Preliminary discussion points to several policies involving prompting women and senior citizens to remain in the labour force while also loosening restrictions on migration and foreign workers, by developing a new visa to encourage researchers and professionals from abroad while assisting those retired to open personal businesses. Finally, the country aims to improve institutional support given to non-traditional family types (“non-traditional” meaning non-nuclear families) alongside improving safety regulations for those living alone.

However, one could argue that until the government implements clear policies to help tackle the underlying issues plaguing the South Korean economy, namely the soaring real estate prices, such reforms will not assist the situation.

This long-term crisis, if left unchecked, will lead to economic turmoil for decades to come. One key problem is that as the population gets older and older, the labour force will constrict and the nation’s dependency ratio will explode, leading to heavy stress placed on the shoulders of both the younger workforce and the government’s welfare expenditure[13].

If current trends continue, the government predicts a further population plummet to 39 million by 2067, with more than 46% of the population over 64[14].

[1] Miriam Quick, South Korea’s population paradox, Generation Project (BBC), 15 October, 2019 [2] Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie and Estaban Ortiz-Ospina, World Population Growth, May 2019 [3] Justin McCurry, South Korea's population falls for first time in its history, January 4, 2021 [4] All News, S. Korean population falls for 1st time on record low births, January 3, 2021 [5] Supra note 3 [6] Rick Gladstone and Choe Sang-Hun, As Birthrate Falls, South Korea’s Population Declines, Posing Threat to Economy, The New York Times, January 4, 2021 [7] Id. [8] Id. [9] Supra note 1. [10] Simon Maybin,'Why I never want babies', BBC, 16 August, 2018 [11] Id. [12] Jiyeun Lee, South Korea Now Seeks Ways to Live With Low Birth Rate, Bloomberg, January 27, 2021. [13] Supra note 3. [14] Id.

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