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South Korea has the lowest number of children born per woman in the world. The fact that women “strike” against inequality by not marrying or having children is pointed out as a reason.
– I want to focus on my job and my life, says Eunhyun Han, 33.
Eunhyun Han doesn’t want to be like his mother.
– My mother needed to stop working and stay at home with the children. Their generation sacrificed twenty years to raise their children. And even now, many women are forced to leave their jobs when they become parents. I don’t want it that way and I think most women here feel the same way, says Eunhyun Han.
Outside the large glass windows of a cafe in one of Seoul’s skyscraper districts, office workers in dark suits rush by. Eunhyun Han, 33, prepares for the afternoon shift as a freelance English teacher. Today, she will help the employees of an insurance company to improve their English.
She will devote the evening to the acting classes she attends twice a week. Together with her teacher, she is planning a film project. She enjoys life as single and childless.
– I want to focus on teaching and acting, says Eunhyun Han.
She hopes to be able to move abroad, preferably to the United States.
– If you are married or have children, it becomes very difficult to do something like that.
The world’s lowest birth rate
Eunhyun Han is far from alone in not wanting children. Last year, 0.78 children were born per woman in South Korea. The country has the world’s lowest birth rate and nowhere else is the population shrinking faster. By the end of the century, the number of South Koreans is expected to have halved, according to the UN forecast.
In the urban landscape of Seoul, there are few small children to be seen, and the pink seat in the subway cars reserved for pregnant women is usually empty. Out in the country, preschools are being converted into retirement homes.
– The development will lead to a stagnant economy because there are fewer people earning and spending money, says Andrew Eungi Kim, a sociologist at Korea University in Seoul.
Why do South Koreans opt out of children? Uncertain labor market, long working days and high living costs are pointed out as important reasons. The fierce competition in Korean society is another factor.
– Everyone who is old enough to get married and have children has gone through what in Korea is called “educational hell”, says Andrew Eungi Kim.
Students are expected to study every waking hour of the day and participate in expensive after-school tutoring to get into the most prestigious universities.
– Many Koreans of childbearing age ask themselves if they really want a child exposed to this, says Andrew Eungi Kim.
Worst for women
More women than men – 65 percent compared to 48 percent – do not want children, shows a survey from last year. Surveys also show that women are much less interested than men in getting married, which in South Korea is seen as a prerequisite for having children. Children out of wedlock are still taboo.
– South Korean women spend extremely much more time than men on taking care of households and children, compared to other countries in the industrialized world, says Hawon Jung, former Seoul correspondent for the AFP news agency and current author of the book “Flowers of fire” about South Korea’s feminist movement.
– Even in families where the woman works and the man stays at home, women spend more time looking after the household and children. It is clear that many women find marriage and parenthood an unattractive option.
South Korea ranks as the worst of all rich countries when it comes to the situation of women in working life.
– Discrimination against women, and especially working mothers, is widespread. It is common for women to be fired or pressured to quit their jobs after having children, says Hawon Jung.
“War of the Sexes”
In South Korea, there is talk of women going on “birth strikes” and “marriage strikes” in protest against the lack of equality. This in turn has led to a counter-movement. Conservative President Yoon Suk-Yeol won last year’s election by playing on what Korean media call the “war of the sexes,” and has blamed the child shortage on feminism, which he says hinders “healthy relationships” between men and women.
Over the years, South Korean governments have tried to solve the baby crisis by offering increasing financial support to parents and subsidized housing to newlyweds. Critics believe that more fundamental changes to society are required.
– That the government gives more money to parents will not change the situation on the labor market, says Eunhyun Han.
Not wanting children is becoming more accepted in South Korea, but Eunhyun Han still feels some pressure from her parents.
– My mother sees children as the most important and best thing in life and was very sad when I said that I will not have any. I felt guilty. But that doesn’t mean I will get married and have children for my parents’ sake.
FACT South Korea’s child shortage
In just a few generations, South Korea has transformed from a poor agricultural nation to one of the world’s leading economies.
The country has become a major exporter of electronics, cars and culture such as k-pop and film.
At the same time, the birth rate has fallen sharply – from 5.6 children per woman in the 1950s to 0.78 per child in 2022. When the figure is lower than 2.1 children per woman, the population declines, without migration.
By 2067, South Korea may have more retirees than working-age residents. At the same time, immigration is very low.
In South Korea, the lowest number of marriages was registered last year since 1970. Being married is seen in South Korea as a prerequisite for having children. Almost three percent of children are born outside of marriage.
Measures put in place to reverse the trend include extra financial support for parents. The state has spent over SEK 2,000 billion on this in the last 16 years without success.
The government has proposed that men who have three or more children by the age of 30 should be exempted from military service. Another proposal is to let in more foreign guest workers who can relieve families of the housework.
Source: Foreign Policy Institute, Korea Herald
Read moreFACTS Highest and lowest birth rates of the OECD countries
1. Israel 3.00
2. Czech Republic 1.83
3. Mexico 1.82
4. Iceland 1.82
5. France 1.80
6. Ireland 1.72
7. Denmark 1.72
8. Colombia 1.72
9. Australia 1.70
10. Turkey 1.70
11. Sweden 1.67
29. Canada 1.43
30. Greece 1.43
31. Luxembourg 1.38
32. Lithuania 1.36
33. Portugal 1.35
34. Poland 1.33
35. Japan 1.30
36. Italy 1.25
37. Spain 1.19
38. South Korea 0.81
The figures refer to 2021. By 2022, South Korea’s birth rate had dropped to 0.78.
Source: OECD, Foreign Policy Institute.