South Korea is going the way of Japan. The latter country is already experiencing population decline due to its low birthrate and South Korea is following closely behind. According to the Hankyoreh, the number of births in South Korea in 2016 was 406,300: the lowest number ever recorded. This is less than half the number of births recorded in 1981 (867,000) and means that in 2016 South Korea’s natural population growth was only 125,000 people (a 20% drop from 2015). Not only is the number of births declining (there were 7.3% fewer births in 2016 that the year before) but the fertility rate as a whole is declining: in 2016 the average number of babies a South Korean woman will deliver in the curse of her life dropped to 1.17. This was a drop of 0.07 (5.6%) on the year before and means that for 16 years in a row now South Korea has remained a “lowest-low fertility rate country” (defined by the OECD to mean that the fertility rate is below 1.3).This is despite the government spending over USD70 billion over the last decade to address the low fertility rate.
If current trends continue then it will only be a handful of years before South Korea’s population (currently at 51 million) starts to decline without large scale immigration to prop it up. And there is little to suggest that such a decline won’t occur. The head of the population trends section at Statistics Korea noted that the numbers are not surprising:
“The fact that 47% of people in their early 30s, the ideal period for marriage, are unmarried, and that there are fewer people in this cohort, representing the children of the baby boomers, than among those born between 1979 and 1982, known as the ‘baby boom echo generation,’ has contributed to the decrease in the birth rate.”
As South Koreans have fewer babies, the age of mothers is also increasing (meaning that on average there South Korean women are using less and less of their ‘window of fertility’). The average age for childbirth was 32.4 years, up 0.2 years from the year before. The percentage of mothers who are aged 35 years and older is now at 26.3%, an increase of 2.4% from the year before and a doubling from just ten years ago.
So, aside from its neighbour to the North with its nascent nuclear weapons programme and thousands of artillery barrels pointed at Seoul, South Korea has another existential threat: its super low fertility rate. Neither threat seems easy to solve. But each year that its fertility rate does not increase the demographic (and therefore economic and military) power of the south wanes.