Today, in 2018, Korea is experiencing its lowest ever birthrate. The number of births in Korea is less than 400,000 per year. According to the Minister of Health and Welfare, Park Neung-Hoo, Korea is experiencing an extremely low birthrate that is one of a kind in the world. The birthrate has declined to below 400,000, and younger generations are giving up on marriage and childbirth. Korea’s hard society-economic structure is the fundamental cause. Young people can only marry and have children in a society that guarantees basic livelihoods, providing stable jobs and homes.
Before analyzing the problem of childbirth, we will examine how the birthrate of Korea has changed. First, in the 1960s, after the 1950 to 1953 Korean War, Korea’s birthrate increased rapidly because of the baby boom and improved medical treatment. Therefore, the government tried to control the birthrate through its Project of Family Planning, using the slogan, “By giving birth to children without asking yourself questions, you cannot avoid being poor.” In the 1970s, there were no special differences from society in the 1960s. At that time, the birthrate per family decreased to four from six, but the government did not stop the childbirth control policy. Moreover, that was the time when couples started to have a strong preference for having a son, so the government changed its childbirth policy, adopting the slogan “Let’s raise just two kids without discrimination.” In the 1980s, the birthrate continued decreasing. The birthrate per family decreased to two. This was caused by the city population concentration phenomenon, resulting from industrialization and more women joining the workforce. In addition, private education expenses rose, and people had different values regarding children at that time. These factors, combined with the government’s birthrate control policy, were the trigger of the low-childbirth problem seen today.
In the 1990s, the Korean government’s birthrate policy had very different characteristics compared to the past. At that time, because of the preference for sons, Korean society was faced with the problem of having a high male to female ratio that exceeded 11:5 of sex ratio at birth. As society changed, the government’s policy and slogans also changed. “Teacher, if I do well, would you let me have a girl for a partner?” This was the result of the decreased birthrate and the increased ratio of boys to girls being born.
Lastly, in the 2000s, the preference for a son slowly disappeared, and at that time, Korea suffered from the IMF economic crisis. People’s values changed, and the ultimate result of the extremely low-birthrate problem hit. This became accepted as a national level problem and made the government deliberate on various policies regarding this problem. The Korean government introduced support policies such as childbirth grants and providing child rearing expenses, but this was not effective. In 2013, Korea’s birthrate was 1.24 percent, ranking 219th out of 224 countries in the world. Moreover, the government invested almost 127 trillion won, but now in 2018, Korea is experiencing an extremely low-birthrate which is below 400,000 newborns per annum.
Let’s check Korea’s population ratio in more detail. According to Statistics Korea, from 2010 to 2015, the world’s population ratio was 1.1%, but Korea’s was 0.5%, under half the world’s population. Korea’s population growth is expected to decrease to -0.1%, when the world’s population growth is 0.7%. With a decreasing population growth, Korea’s working age population is also falling rapidly. In 1960, Korea’s working age population was 53%, 106th in the world. However, since then, it rapidly increased because of the government’s policies and the baby boom. It rose to 73.5% in 2015, when the nation ranked tenth in the world. However, it has gradually decreased, so experts are predicting that in 2030, Korea’s working age population will be 63.1%, ranking 115th, and in 2060, it will have decreased even more to 49.7%, ranking in 119th place in the world.
We should pay attention to how the government has tried to solve this problem. The typical policy which is now in place is the pregnancy and delivery fee support policy. Through this policy, the government provides a card that a pregnant woman can use when she receives medical treatment for her pregnancy or delivery. A pregnant woman can receive up to 500,000 won per pregnancy, but if she gets pregnant multiple times or belongs to the low-income bracket, she can receive more. In the former case, a pregnant woman can receive up to 900,000 won, and in the latter case, she can get an additional 200,000 won.
Moreover, from now, according to the revised plan of the National Public Official’s Public Service Regulations, a public official’s working hours are to be decreased by a maximum of two hours if a female worker is pregnant or if she or a male worker has a child (or children) whose age is (are) below five years old. In addition, male government workers are entitled to a maximum of 10 days of paternity leave instead of 5 if their spouses give birth. Other policies which will be enforced from March focus on caring services for children. “I-dolbom (child care)” Service will take care of several families’ children at once, and this can help reduce the charge for this service. The Public Nanny Service will be tested in March. Besides, concentrating on metropolitan areas, the government is planning to provide various care facilities for children, such as Public Infant Homes, and provide human resources to take care of children.
During the last ten years, the Korean Government has invested a huge amount, close to almost 127 trillion won. However, it has not been effective. The result is the lowest ever birthrate. What is the problem?
According to a research fellow, Jongseo Park, previous policies were based on the 1960s-1970s development model, which considered population growth in relation to the development of the state and economic development, so the policies were the reverse of today’s existing birth encouragement policies. Therefore, one of the problems is that how we understand this low-birthrate problem has not changed fundamentally. In addition, according to Joon Han, a professor of sociology at Yonsei University, Korea’s current birth encouragement policies ignore the importance of ensuring happy families and healthy social environments, and just represent the past which was very patriarchal. Moreover, the difficulties of taking care of children are also serious causes of the low-birthrate problem.
The problems of the policies introduced during the last ten years have resulted from misunderstanding the reasons why the young generation does not want to have children, or have only one child. The politicians only concentrate on the ratio of childbirth, and they do not understand what effective benefits for newlyweds are needed. According to Baek-yoon Heo, a reporter for Seoul Newspaper, “In reality, there is a lack of time and money for young Koreans to raise children without their parent’s help, and the Korean Government’s policies do not address this shortage of time.” Besides, Eun-ji Kim, a researcher at the Korea Women’s Policy Institute, said, “Not just providing part of the fees, a more important thing is that the nation should actively increase the infrastructure with high public awareness and should play the role of supplying high-quality care services.” To sum up, the policies have provided just one part of the delivery fee and considered patriarchal family moods of the past.
The nation should implement fundamental support policies to ensure a “good environment for childbirth and childcare.” In this sense, the extension of baby care support implemented from March this year is expected to work well. In addition, Jaehoon Jung, a professor of social welfare at Seoul Women's University, expects the low birthrate problem to be alleviated as a result of Korea becoming a welfare nation that champions gender equality. She argues that a society that is suitable for childcare based on gender equality and the expansion of the universal social security system should be set aside from demographic policies for quantitative management. According to Chulhee Lee's article, "Analyzing Factors of the Change of the Total Fertility Rate in Korea," the decrease in the total fertility rate of Korea since 1991 is mainly due to the decrease in the proportion of married women. Therefore, it is necessary to implement a policy that encourages marriage.
In conclusion, it is imperative that fundamental measures are taken to make our modern society suitable for young people to marry and raise their children. It is impossible to address the extremely low-birthrate that Korea faces with one-dimensional policies such as the policies which want to increase newborns in quantitative terms, offer support for childbirth and childcare expenses, and impose additional taxes when young people choose not to have children.
In 2018, the aging of Korea due to the low birthrate will exponentially increase, which seriously weakens national competitiveness and causes generational conflict. Unless economic burdens and substantial childcare difficulties are removed, superficial policies such as offering childbearing support, offering more vacation, or decreasing work hours are absurd, and this low birthrate problem cannot be resolved. Therefore, lawmakers must identify the underlying causes and solve the problem immediately.
Joo-eun Kwon, CP Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
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