South Korea’s World’s-Lowest Fertility Rate Drops to New Record, Again

Bianca Echa

South Korea’s World’s-Lowest Fertility Rate Drops to New Record, Again

South Korea set a new record for the world’s lowest fertility rate as the impact of the nation’s aging demographics looms large for its medical system, social welfare provision and economic growth.

The number of babies expected per woman fell to 0.72 last year from 0.78 in 2022, according to data released Wednesday by South Korea’s national statistics office. The number of newborns also slid by 7.7% to 230,000, setting a fresh low for comparable data in a nation of about 50 million people.

Read More: The Low-Fertility Trap: Why Some Countries May Have to Accept the New Normal

The lack of babies is speeding up the aging of South Korean society, generating concerns about the growing fiscal burden of public pensions and healthcare. 

President Yoon Suk Yeol has already run into difficulties as he tries to take action in response the demographic challenges the nation is facing.

Yoon’s government is seeking to boost the number of medical students in a country that has one of the most acute shortages of doctors in the developed world, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The shortage is only expected to grow worse as South Korea ages.

Thousands of trainee doctors have handed in their resignations and walked out in protest, saying the plan doesn’t address key issues with their working conditions. That’s resulted in a standoff threatening lives ahead of parliamentary elections in April.

Read More: Thousands of Doctors in South Korea Strike Over Government Plan to Train More Physicians

The government has set an ultimatum of the end of the month for the trainees to return or face action and has already filed a criminal complaint against doctors it alleges have encouraged the walkouts.

Doctors are pointing to the low number of births as a reason the government should scrap its plan to raise medical school intakes by about two-thirds. They are planning a mass rally this weekend while authorities are investigating the death of a woman that may be related to the walkout by more than 9,000 trainee doctors.

Low fertility also threatens South Korea’s economic prosperity and dynamism in the long term by shrinking its workforce and slowing consumption. Bank of Korea Governor Rhee Chang-yong has said that the low proportion of births is already starting to weigh on growth potential, while warning against Japan-style fiscal and monetary stimulus to combat the challenges of an aging economy.

Fewer babies also mean fewer South Korean soldiers, casting a long shadow over national security in a country that faces the threat of provocations from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s 1.2-million-strong army.

Read More: South Korea Muses a New Military Exemption: Serve Your Country By Having More Kids

Diverse factors are blamed for South Koreans’ reluctance to have kids. They range from the high cost of housing to the expensive and highly competitive environment for children’s education. Increasing gender tensions are another reason regularly highlighted.

In 2022 marriages fell to a new low in South Korea where births out of wedlock remain rare. Some 192,500 couples tied the knot, down 42% from decade earlier, according to Statistics Korea.

Once couples get married, they fear suffering unfavorable consequences if they take time off from work to look after their children. South Korea has the smallest share of parents going on leave for children in the developed world, according to a Korea National Assembly Research Service study.

Women also find it hard to regain their job security and wages after coming back from childcare. South Korea has the highest share of late-middle-aged women with temporary jobs in the OECD, which feeds into the worst gender wage gap in the developed world.

Read More: South Korea’s Infanticide Problem Highlights Wider Population Struggles

The challenge of declining populations isn’t unique to South Korea. Aging is increasing fiscal burdens in other developed countries by raising fiscal burdens, spurring concerns for long-term debt sustainability, reducing spending on infrastructure and eventually hurting the quality of life.

A separate report by the U.N. Population Fund showed South Korea ranked the second lowest at 0.9 in fertility, just after Hong Kong at 0.8. The U.N. and Statistics Korea use different modeling methods with South Korea basing its figure on actual population statistics rather than projections.

Still, among nations with larger populations, South Korea’s population crisis is acute. A Statistics Korea forecast last year projected the population in 2072 would fall to 36.2 million, a 30% decline from the current 51 million.

Other moves by the government to address the country’s demographic challenges, include a tripling of monthly allowances for parents of newborns and a reduction of mortgage interest rates. South Korea also plans to ease regulations on hiring foreign nannies to boost the limited options available for childcare.

Read More: How South Korea Is Tackling Its Demographic Crisis

Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon is also considering a city-sponsored matchmaking program as part of efforts to promote marriages and stem the decline in births. The city posted a fertility rate of 0.55 last year, the lowest among all regions, according to the latest data.

Policymakers are also trying to come up with ways to maintain the quality of life even as the population shrinks. 

Earlier this year Finance Minister Choi Sang-mok likened the dangers of South Korea’s demographics to the iceberg that sank the Titanic, saying it’s already too late to reverse the trend simply via fertility rates. 

The government’s options may include raising the retirement age, boosting automation at work and opening the door wider to immigrants, experts say.

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