Korea’s population crisis

Korea is suffering from a national crisis of super-low fertility. The head of the Korean affiliate of Planned Parenthood explains why.
Choi Seon-jeong | Jul 1 2009 | comment  



The head of the Korean affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation recently pleaded with his countrymen and women to have more children. Choi Seon-jeong, president of the Planned Population Federation of Korea, warned in the JoongAng Daily that his government must combat a "national crisis of super-low fertility", or Korea will disappear. MercatorNet asked him to explain how this has happened and how he proposes to increase birth rates.

MercatorNet: The latest statistics show that the fertility rate in the Republic of Korea is one of the lowest in the world. You have described this as a "national crisis of super-low fertility". What do you fear will happen?

Choi Seon-jeong: Nowadays South Korea has the lowest fertility rate and the quickest ageing rate in the world. Experts are worrying that these will seriously affect the sustainable development of Korean society. If the current trends continue, the total population will decrease after reaching 49,340,000 in 2018. It is expected that after reaching 0% in 2019, the growth rate of the population will get slower and turn into negative growth. The working–age population (between 15 and 64 years) will decrease after reaching 36,190,000 in 2019. The 25 to 49 age group will decrease after reaching 20,660,000, slowing the rate of economic growth.

MercatorNet: Korea now faces rapid population ageing. Will this have economic consequences?

Choi Seon-jeong: It will take only 18 years for an ageing society (7% over 65) to become an aged society (14% over 65) and only 8 years for an aged society to become a super-aged society (20% over 65). If the preparation to meet the situation of aged society and super-aged society is not well done, many social problems are inevitable. The working-age population will bear heavier burdens of tax and social security because it has to support the aged population. Conflict between different generations will probably get severe.

In 2007 it took 7 persons among the working-age population to support one aged person. In 2020 it will take 4.5 persons and in 2050 it will take 1.4 persons.

The ageing rate of workers will also increase. Workers aged 40 and over accounted for 15.7% of the workforce in 1980 and for 39.5% in 2004. The rate of workers in their 20s decreased sharply from 60.6% in 1980 to 27.5% in 2004.

MercatorNet: For years, the Korean government has encouraged married couples to have only one child. It seems to have succeeded. But, in hindsight, was this a misguided policy?

Choi Seon-jeong: To reduce the volume of population was one of the top priorities in 1960s when Korea had a total fertility rate (TFR) of 6.1. To achieve this, the Korean government pushed a policy promoting one child per family. The Family Planning Association of Korea (currently PPFK) was the implementation organisation of the policy. This policy was deeply combined with other policies focusing on the economic development. In other words, the family planning policy was urgently needed and strongly implemented from an economic point of view at the time.

But looking back, we recognise that the direction of policy had to be changed when the TFR reached 2.1. In fact, the change was not realised until 20 years later in the early 2000s. We can say that the one-child policy met the needs of its time but it did not change at the proper time.

The reasons for low fertility rate are late marriage, an unfavourable social environment for women to do "work and home" at the same time, too much money needed to raise children, and so on.

MercatorNet: Some observers say that young Koreans no longer see marriage and having children as unnecessary for a full and satisfying life? Do you think that this is true? If so, how can attitudes be changed?

Choi Seon-jeong: It is true that the attitude towards marriage and having children has changed a lot among the younger generation. They think more highly of relationships with their partners and are less likely to depend for fulfilment on their children.

One study conducted in 2006 by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA) shows that 71.4% of men and only 49.2% of women among those 20 years old and over think positively about marriage.

Apart from the changed attitude towards marriage, the growing rate of women in their middle and late 20s who participate in society and the weakness of the social system to support those working women who want to have children (many of them have to abandon either their job or their home) contributes to the low fertility rate in Korea.

To change the situation, we need to introduce or develop various and flexible working types such as part-time working or working from home; to build a strong social infrastructure to let women feel comfortable about child-bearing and child-rearing; and to create a new corporate atmosphere which does not discriminate against women because of their marriage and child-bearing and child-rearing.

MercatorNet: In the 1960s, the fertility rate was about 6 children per woman and now it is about 1.19. How has Korean society changed as a result?

Choi Seon-jeong: The possibility for women to participate in society as workers has increased from 47% in 1995 to 58.7% in 2007. The concept of nuclear family with just one or two children has become universal in Korea. The traditional preference for sons has been weakened.

MercatorNet: What changes in social policy are needed to lift the birthrate to at least replacement levels?

Choi Seon-jeong: Several things. Korea needs to create a new social atmosphere to make a woman’s job and her home life compatible. We need to allow workers to spend more time with their families. The annual working hours of a worker in Korea is 2,357 hours, the longest in the world. We need to vitalise the public education system to reduce the financial burden of private education and other expenses for children. We need to provide financial support for families, such as a child allowance or a child-rearing allowance, even if only for a very short period.

MercatorNet: Are parents spending too much on their children’s education?

Choi Seon-jeong: In Korea, elementary and middle school education is compulsory. So when it comes to public elementary and middle school, there are no school fees. After middle school, students have to enter high school, university and graduate school -- as far as they would like to keep studying. Most of the high school students go to private academy or get extra-curricular lectures personally to get into the prestigious universities.

MercatorNet: You recently argued in the JoongAng Daily that "Religious groups need to advocate respect for life, abortion prevention and positive values on marriage and parenthood, encouraging the younger generation to form families and have children." These are unusual suggestions from Planned Parenthood. Does this indicate a shift in policy, or special circumstances faced by Korea?

Choi Seon-jeong: It is true that Korea implemented the family control policy to reduce the volume of population. It was a kind of family planning to meet the needs of that time. In principle, family planning means to plan how many children to have for happy family life. So when too many children impose a heavy burden on a family and the society, to reduce the number could be an appropriate way of family planning. On the contrary, when there are few children, to bear and raise more children will contribute to our happiness and the way of family planning will be also changed accordingly.

As the needs of Korean society have changed, we changed the name from "family planning association" into "planned population federation" in 2006.

With the change of name, we have reorganised ourselves into a low fertility rate team, an ageing society team, a public relation team, and so on and started to design and implement more comprehensive family planning programs, such as programs to prevent induced abortions, programs to support infertile couples, match-making programs, programs to dispatch assistants to women with her new-born babies, programs to enhance awareness of the public, and so on. To promote child-bearing and child-rearing, we should make efforts to prevent induced abortion, especially in cooperation with religious circles.

MercatorNet: Are Koreans taking this warning seriously?

Choi Seon-jeong: The Korean government has taken the low fertility phenomenon very seriously and has launched several laws and regulations to overcome it: for example, a "basic law in the age of low fertility rate and ageing" was introduced in 2005.

A Low Fertility Rate and Ageing Society Commission has been also established under direct control of the president and in cooperation with several ministries as well. From 2008 on, the Minister of Health has taken the position of chairperson of the Commission.

For the last 5 years, 15 central ministries and offices, research institutes and non-governmental professionals have participated in the Commission and completed a policy-shaping guideline titled "the First Basic Five-Year Plan for Low Fertility Rate and an Ageing Society (from 2006 through 2010)".

According to this plan, the central government and local authorities are implementing annual projects such as providing infertile couples with financial support.

Choi Seon-jeong, a former Korean minister of health and welfare, is the president of the Planned Population Federation of Korea.



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