In South Korea the number of elderly people as a proportion of the population has grown nearly fourfold in the last forty years. In 1981 the number of those aged over 65 years old was 3.8 percent of the population, but today that same cohort makes up 13.1 percent. This makes South Korea one of the fastest ageing societies in the world. Unfortunately, it is also a society that has one of the lowest retirement income systems in the developed world. According to the New York Times, the 2015 Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index placed South Korea 24th out of 25 major economies when measuring retirement income systems. In 2014 only 45 percent of South Koreans between 55 and 79 received pensions and 30 percent of older South Korean families have a monthly income below the absolute poverty level. Part of the problem is that the Government requires elderly people to prove that their families cannot or will not support them, and many are too embarrassed to provide such proof. In fact, the OECD’s annual “How’s Life?” report in October this year ranked South Korea at the bottom on the question of whether they had relatives or friends to depend on in times of need.

Apart from living close to poverty in their last few years, a fear of what will happen once they die with no money affects elderly South Koreans immensely. As the New York Times reports:

“A growing number of South Koreans are dying alone, with no relative willing to claim their remains and perform a ritual Koreans believe is essential to easing the deceased’s passage to the other world.

The surge in so-called lonely deaths — to 1,008 last year from 682 in 2011, according to government statistics — provides a small but poignant glimpse of how South Korea’s long-cherished traditional family structure is changing. Though South Koreans have mostly benefited from a strong economy in recent decades, families have come under strain from economic and demographic upheaval.”

Many observers place much of the blame on the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s when lifetime employment, a given up until then in South Korea, disappeared. Many people lost jobs and some never financially recovered. Now, many elderly South Koreans face their old age without any retirement savings or children capable of supporting them. And one of their greatest fears is not being given a proper funeral, an important part of community life. In fact, many elderly Koreans’ bodies will not even be retrieved by their families since they cannot afford to do so.

“Especially in the case of elderly people living alone or the homeless, survivors in the low-income class don’t claim the family member’s corpse because of the economic burden of a funeral,” said Kim Jae-ho at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.”

So there are now charitable groups like Nanum & Nanum that hold simple funerals for those who die alone. One of their members, Park Jin-ok, put matters very bluntly:

“A society that lets its poor and abandoned die alone and leave without a funeral is itself dying at its heart…[The elderly] spend their last days fearing their remains will be treated like trash.”

Not surprisingly then that one out of every four elderly people in South Korea has depression, according to a recent report published by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. It seems that growing old in South Korea is not easy when one doesn’t have family to support you. Although that is probably true everywhere in the world. Governments might be better elsewhere at providing for the financial wellbeing of their elderly citizens, but no government can supply the more important support of a loving family. That, I think, is the real tragedy here: so many lonely elderly Koreans. 

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...