The Strange Self-Imposed Suicide of South Korea

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South Korea’s low birth rate is a mystery that anthropologists and sociologists alike struggle to solve. (Image Credit: CNN)

South Korean politician Cheol-Soo Ahn (안철수) once said,

“The birthrate of a country is the barometer of how the citizens feel hopeful about the future.  The suicide rate of a country is the barometer of how the citizens feel hopeless about the present.  Today, Korea has the highest suicide rate and the lowest birthrate among the OECD’s member states.  What does that say about South Korea’s situation today?”

Indeed. South Korea is currently holding the dishonorable title of having the lowest birthrate amongst all the developed nations in the world; and at this rate close to the whole globe, with a birthrate of startling 0.6 children per fertile woman – grossly beneath the replacement level fertility.  Replacement Level Fertility is a term used to explain the number of babies that must be born per woman to maintain a country’s population.  The idea is that people will one day grow old and die, so the nation’s population needs to have at least two children to replace the dead parents.  This in turn means that a country that has less than two children per woman will see its population slowly dwindle and fall. 

Most, if not all, developed nations have birthrates that do not meet Replacement Levels of Fertility.  France is a country considered to have a high birthrate among rich nations, but even France only has a birthrate of 1.87 children.  South Korea is one of the countries with the worst birthrate, in which by 2020 the nation’s birthrate was 0.84 – meaning that there is on average less than one baby being born per woman.   The projected birth rate is expected to fall even further, into 0.79 by 2023 projections, and some even worry it might fall to 0.7 by as early as 2024.  In fact, no other country within the OECD has a birthrate below 1 child per fertile woman – making it an outlier even within developed nations.

Experts tried for decades to figure out why the Korean people are committing a slow but sure act of self-imposed erasure.

Many have pointed out that Koreans have some of the worst working hours among OECD members – stacking up nearly 2,000 hours of work per person a year.  But then again, this doesn’t provide the full picture: Mexico has an even higher number of hours than South Korea, but has an impressive birthrate of 1.6 children per fertile women as of 2022.  Maybe South Korea’s low record of fathers and mothers taking parental leave could be the culprit?  But again, the numbers don’t line up – Belgian parents take less parental leave than South Korea but still have a birthrate of 1.55 per woman as of 2020.  Then, there is also the case of Japan where both parents have a significantly higher rate of taking parental leave than Korea – around 60% of Japanese mothers and fathers take parental leave compared to Korea which has 30% of mothers and 40% of fathers taking parental leave respectively; yet Japan still has a relatively low birthrate of 1.26 in 2022.

In the end, observing single variables to figure out what is causing the record-low birthrates of South Korea could be meaningless.  So many have tried to crack this puzzle but failed, each latching on to their social malady of choice in trying to figure out why Koreans have given up on their posterity – some have touched upon rising housing costs while others have touched upon the excessively high toll parents have to pay to educate their offspring.  All have failed to pinpoint the exact single cause of Korea’s slow but sure death of its population.  As with many countries, South Korea’s government even tried to outright bribe couples to have more children by providing services, tax benefits, and sometimes even outright cash handouts to parents that have more children.  All has failed, and even after South Korea spent around 1.5% of its entire GDP to reverse the downward population spiral, the Korean people are not budging.  Then again, using tax to pay its way through the population decimation might not be the best way to solve this problem anyway – the U.K. has spent more than 4% of its GDP to raise its birthrates but only has a birthrate of 1.5 as of 2022.

Perhaps the underlying cause is something that has eluded even the most decorated sociologists and anthropologists.  But one thing is for certain – the majority of Koreans don’t want to have children.  More than half of young Koreans (53.5%) are said to have responded that even if they do get married, they do not feel that having children is necessary or desirable.  Then, there is also the problem of marriage as well.  According to the Korean statistics bureau, there has been a constant drop of Koreans getting married every year. The number of total marriages has suffered a 10% decrease within 10 years.  The number of one-person households (people who live alone) have also gone up from 15.5% to 33.4% between 2000 to 2021.  Considering that children are usually born between married couples, the drop in married couples would directly affect the number of children born.

In the end, it seems that Korea’s population problem is like an elusive cancer – it is slow yet lethal, and nobody knows the cure for it.  While some might see this problem as simply a macabre sight to see, others would be wise to figure out what exactly caused Koreans to choose their own erasure before it is too late; otherwise, the same malady might one day spread to their own populations and start their very own downward spiral. 

Written by Seth Jessoo Kang

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