Demographic time bomb in S. Korea over world's lowest birth rate, super aging

S Korea low birth rates
Photo credit: Yonhap

The unprecedentedly low birth rate in South Korea last year highlighted the daunting demographic task the country is facing of how to prevent depopulation amid little signs of improvement over changing social norms and tougher economic circumstances, experts said Wednesday, Yonhap reports.

Data by Statistics Korea showed that the country's total fertility rate, which means the average number of expected births from a woman in her lifetime, fell to an all-time quarterly low of 0.65 in the October-December period in 2023.

It came far below the 2.1 births per woman needed to keep the country's population at 51 million in a stable manner without immigration.

The yearly rate also dropped to 0.72 in 2023 from the previous year's 0.78. The comparable figure in 2015 came to 1.24.

South Korea is the only country among the member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) where the total fertility rate had come below 1 as of 2021.

It came on the heels of Hong Kong in terms of the low total fertility rate across the globe, which logged the world's lowest total fertility rate of 0.77.

The number of babies born in South Korea last year also tumbled to a record low of 229,970 by decreasing 7.7 percent on-year.

The number hovered below the 400,000 mark for the first time ever in 2017, and skidded further to below 300,000 in 2020 and to under 250,000 in 2022.

The country has suffered a natural decline in population for four consecutive years since 2020.

Things are feared to be getting worse.

"The total fertility rate is expected to come to around 0.68 this year, and the number of newborns is also likely to go down further as many had postponed marriage and childbirths over the past several years due to the COVID-19 pandemic," agency official Lim Young-il told reporters.

The number of newly married couples has risen after the pandemic, but that does not mean that the birth rate will rise accordingly, given recent social trends.

"We've seen a growing number of married couples opting not to have babies, so the probability of more marriages and more babies has become low," Lim added.

By 2072, the country's population will tumble to around 36.22 million, and the median age will increase to 63.4 from 44.9 in 2022, according to the forecast by the statistics agency.

During a forum last year, Oxford University professor emeritus David Coleman warned that South Korea may become the first country to disappear from population extinction in around 2750 if its low birth rate continued.

The professor pointed to the country's patriarchal culture, competition-oriented education, low gender equality and rare out-of-wedlock births, among other factors.

"The population decline poses serious threats not only to the labor market and state finance but every aspect of the society from national defense to education and medical services," Lee Sang-rim, an expert of the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, said.

The gross domestic product (GDP) in South Korea is forecast to drop 28.38 percent in 2050 from the 2022 level as the working age population is projected to slide 34.75 percent during the cited period, a report by the institute showed.

The number of military personnel has been on a steady decline to fall below 500,000 for the first time in 2022, and many have warned that the shrinking pool of conscripts could erode the country's military recruitment capabilities.

All able-bodied men must serve mandatory military service for at least 18 months in South Korea.

"What we need is not just policy measures to boost population, but a firm political resolution to address the issue by making all-out efforts in mobilizing all possible resources," Lee said.

The health ministry in December vowed to come up with "extraordinary measures," though no major plans have been announced.

South Korea increased the budget to respond to such grim demographic changes from around 2.1 trillion won in 2006 to 11.1 trillion won in 2012 and further to 21.4 trillion won in 2016. But it accounted for about 2 percent of GDP.

President Yoon Suk Yeol has called for approaching the issue of the declining birth rate from "a fundamentally different perspective," emphasizing the need to identify its causes and find effective solutions.

Rivals announced a set of measures of their own aimed at addressing the low birth rate, such as guaranteeing parental leave for fathers, the establishment of a population ministry to oversee the demographic changes, and giving rented housing for couples with multiple babies and expanded cash payout for parents.

Many young South Koreans, however, appear to have remained skeptical about such pledges, as they are facing multiple, complex and fundamental reasons of not having a baby, such as unaffordable homes amid a tough job market, high costs and unfavorable social circumstances of raising children, and notoriously long work hours.

"Upon getting married, my husband and I agreed not to have a baby. I want to continue my carrier, and I don't think we can afford the costs of living, child rearing and education in this society," Chung Min-sun, a 34-year-old office worker in Seoul, said.

"My sister had a daughter, and I will never lead such a miserable life as what my sister has had over the past seven years while struggling with her work and child care. I am not alone, as many of my friends have the same plan as me," Chung added.

Currently reading