What are the options for a country that suffers from a low birth rate? There are a few countries around the world which are staring down the barrel of population decline due to a below-replacement fertility rate. These countries might want to take a look at the example of South Korea which is set to become the oldest country in the world in 2045 due to long life spans and a low birth rate. What will South Korea do to try and reverse its low birth rate? And will anything be effective?

At the moment, Korean women have on average 1.2 children in their lifetimes. This is well below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 which is required to merely maintain the current population. Indeed, this rate is so low that there are questions as to whether a society can reverse such an ingrained aversion to having many children.

One of the key reasons for this low birthrate is that it is so hard for Korean women to balance a career. Further the burden of looking after the home and family is overwhelmingly placed upon women by Korean society. As the president of the nonprofit Global Aging Institute, Richard Jackson argues, it could require a fundametal change in Korean workplace and gender societal expectations. As techinsider notes: 

Women in South Korea earn just 65% of what men earn. The country placed 115 of 145on The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2015, sandwiched between the African nations Burkina Faso and Zambia.

It’s even more staggering when you compare women before and after having kids. A 2012 survey of 15 year olds found that Korean girls aspired to high-status careers more than boys. Korean women have a higher workforce participation in their 20s than men, but many women drop out of the labor force in the 30s. When they return in their 40s, they tend to get much less competitive jobs, according to the Economist.” 

On the domestic front, women spend five times as long taking care of children and the home than men, according to the Korea Labour Institute. (Although if the woman stays home for a period of time to breastfeed etc, then isn’t this to be expected?) Not only are there expectations that women do more at home, but men are often trapped in an extreme work culture. 

Koreans work the third-longest hours of the OECD countries, and in the evenings it’s expected that the whole team goes out to booze and bond, leaving little time to help out at home.” 

These issues are deeply ingrained in Korean society, so there is little that a governmental program can do to change things immediately, or even in the middle-term. South Korea could look overseas to other models that developed countries use to encourage women to have babies says Jackson. In the “nanny state” model of France or Sweden you have your job guaranteed if you have a baby and take maternity leave. There is no social stigma in a young mother of children going back to work and children are expected to be put into state daycares to allow their parents to work. Then there is the “flexible labour” model of the USA where it is culturally normal for women to re-enter the workforce, or retrain, or enter part-time work, and where employers are more flexible in their demands. While it is still costs in diverting time from your career to your family, it is easier to step back onto the career ladder in the USA than it is in South Korea. 

Alternatively, South Korea could relyon fresh, overseas blood to bump up its birth rate.

Lots of people (mostly women) from countries like China and the Philippines are moving to South Korea for marriage, to the point that the number of mixed ethnic families grew 700% from 2006 to 2014. By 2030, it’s estimated that 10% of the population will be made u[p of foreign-born families, compared with a little over 2% today. This means huge changes in cultural norms for a society where being “pure-blood”Korean has long been a praise-worthy trait.” 

Finally, there is always the chimera in the distance of reunification with North Korea to push up Korean birthrates. Aside from the rather large geopolitical hurdles, the benefits would be a younger population with a larger fertility rate. But as American Enterprise Institute political economist and author of two books on North Korean demography Nicholas Eberstadt states:

“We don’t know what [North Korea’s] life expectancy is … It may have bounced back from Somalia levels … but we don’t know if it exceed Russian federation, which is brutal for an educated, urbanized society. We don’t know how urbanized it is — it may be more rural than we think. And critically, we don’t really have any hard data about the actual education capability, educational training, and the health of the young working population in the North. That throws a huge question mark over any sort of discussion of the demography of the unified peninsula.”

So maybe reunification is less of the demographic panacea than it first appears. In fact, it seems as if there is no magic-fix for South Korea’s demographic malaise. It seems unlikely that its low birth rate is going anywhere quickly. 

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...