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Sleepless and Childless in Seoul—Persistent Birthrate Decline Calls For New Approach

September 9, 2009

Infant mortality, unwanted baby girls, and China’s infamous One-Child Policy are common themes in discussions about population in the Asia-Pacific region. Given this, who would assume that some Asian nations now face the problem of declining birth rates? Isn’t this a luxury reserved for developed Western countries? Not anymore.

In anticipation of the real thing, medical students practice their delivery skills on a robot at Kyung Hee University

In anticipation of the real thing, medical students practice their delivery skills on a robot at Kyung Hee University

The CIA World Factbook reveals that Hong Kong and Japan yield fewer babies a year than Italy, Germany, or even Eastern European countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Ukraine. South Korea’s case is especially grim with a birth rate of 8.93 per 1000 people, placing the nation in the top 5% of countries that are not having enough kids. To put this into perspective, the U.S. birth rate is 13.82 newborns per 1000 people, only placing at the 30th percentile on the spectrum of low birth rates.  

This is likely to be a huge disappointment to the Korean government, which committed to spend the equivalent of $19.4 billion dollars in 2006 towards a five year “Saeromaeji 2010” plan to save the population.

FIVE YEAR PLAN TO BOOST BIRTH RATE1 USD = 1250 KRW, Sept. 4, 2009
Year South Korean Wons (Trillions) U.S. Dollars (Billions)
2006 2.3 1.8
2007 3.4 2.7
2008 3.9 3.1
2009 4.6 3.7
2010 5 4

Half of this budget went to education. Another 28% went to state-run and private childcare facilities. The remaining funds went towards pregnancy treatments and support for working mothers.

Now, on the verge of the 2010 goal, one might expect to observe a rebounding birthrate. However, the number of newborn babies declined 2.3% from last year, accompanied by a 4.8% drop in marriages . The consequence could be a social security disaster—too many elderly people and too few workers to hold up the nation’s workforce. There could be even deeper implications as the Korean people ask who will carry on the very traditions and cultures that make them who they are.

Prospective parents continue to cite late marriage, infertility, escalating childcare expenses, and lack of social services as major deterrents to having children. Korean marriages are coordinated by agencies that are essentially business brokers. Those who seek a suitable mate need money and status. This means late marriage for ambitious women and no marriage for men living in rural areas that have been drained of prospects. But the men of Korea are not accepting this fate.

Seeking to raise the national birthrate, the South Korean government gives cross border marriages two thumbs up

Seeking to raise the national birthrate, the South Korean government gives cross border marriages two thumbs up

Judging by the 669% jump in interracial marriages since 1990 reported by the Korean Consumer Agency, marrying across borders is more affordable. The fact that 28,000 Korean men married non-Korean women this year while only 8,000 Korean women married non-Korean men is also telling, and defies the conventional image of Asian women marrying foreign men.

Recognizing the inflow of Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipina, Cambodian, Mongolian, Russian, and Central Asians as a boon to the Korean population, the Korean Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs has instated a “Family Policy” which essentially imports these potential mothers by providing them with language training, visa applications, and regulation of marriage agencies that introduce them to Koreans.

 Unfortunately, childlessness has spread beyond the couples who marry too late. The Health Insurance Review and Assessment service shows that 28% more people are currently seeking fertility treatment than they did in 2004, and that 90% of these patients are only in their 20s and 30s. The Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs estimated that 15% of all newlyweds sought in vitro fertilization methods between 2005 and 2007. Speculations of the causes include smoking, alcohol consumption, caffeine, radiation from electronics, unhealthy foods, and lack of food in an image conscious society. Whatever the case, Korean medical insurance only offers partial coverage for fertility treatments, and only to women already on welfare. Health ministry official Lee Sang-young is among those who covet the French and Japanese policies of full coverage for multiple in-vitro fertilization attempts. He feels that infertility is becoming a widespread issue that must be addressed.

 

However, creating pregnancies is not really a long-term solution, either.  France’s success in recovering its birth rate may be attributable to the fact that its government spends 47 times the amount that Korea does on raising children, according to a report by the Chosun Ilbo . Korea still spends just 0.35% of its GDP on child support, understandably leaving people wary of parenthood.

Role Model for Mothers? Model Byeon Jeong-soo shows off her radiant pregnancy in 2006

Role Model for Mothers? Model Byeon Jeong-soo shows off her radiant pregnancy in 2006

The aid that is available for fertility and child rearing is distributed by local governments. Some districts provide allowances, tax breaks, and “baby bonuses” to families while others do nothing. Furthermore, social attitudes do not disappear overnight. Though recent regulation mandates up to $400 per month of pay during maternity leave, Korean women face the same social pressures to not take leave or get pregnant in the first place.

It is easy to criticize Korea’s attitude towards mothers. French women get a full year of paid maternity leave, and customarily spend two more years raising their newborns. However, perhaps French women enjoy these benefits because France has a government-backed 35-hour work week. In comparison, Korea has the longest work week in the world at 44+ hours average . Therefore, it is no surprise that Korean women find it difficult to enjoy the same amount time off for motherhood.

Korea faces a different set economic constraints than, and the result is a social emphasis on jobs, education, and economy that pervades culture and thought. So to individuals, jobs mean everything (hence, later marriages). To parents, their children’s education is first priority (hence, apprehension of being unable to provide for children). To the government, the economy is necessarily number one (hence, the difficulty in providing comprehensive social welfare targeted towards raising children).

So what now? The Korean government needs to regroup and start addressing the cause rather than the symptoms. This is not to say that the new agenda for recruiting, accommodating, and integrating foreign women to the country is a bad idea. Nor is it to say that promises of paternity leave or ideas of childcare by senior citizens will fail. But as the editorial desk of the Korea Herald states, “a one-time cash payment …will not prod a family to have another child when raising that child will cost a hundred times more.” Bottom line, it seems as though the South Korean government should focus on making high quality childcare and education available to more than just the elite. Furthermore, aid must be centralized and distributed to the children who have already been born. Only after observing that children have adequate support will the younger generations decide that it is rational to bring life into this world.

Based in Andover, Massachusetts, Jia H. Jung is a Master of Pacific and International Affairs accounting for an international wholesaler. You can contact her at jia.h.jung@gmail.com .

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