South Korea's Demographic Troubles
March 21, 2019
From the Editor
The Korea Public Square is a forum for expert discussion on issues related to Korea’s past, present, and future. As a part of the tenth anniversary of the Korea Chair, CSIS inaugurates this new series for open dialogue on issues of importance to Korea and its future in the region. Experts, journalists, scholars, and opinion leaders are invited to engage in featured discussions.
In this first Korea Public Square, the CSIS Korea Chair invited Mr. Evan Ramstad and Dr. Elizabeth Hervey Stephen to assess a topic of critical importance to Korea’s future—demographic trends.
South Koreans Are Having Fewer and Fewer Children, and It’s Time Moon Got Serious about Changing That
Evan Ramstad, Deputy Business Editor, Minneapolis Star Tribune and Korea Chair senior associate, CSIS
On the day last month when South Korean president Moon Jae-in anticipated a step forward in nuclear diplomacy, with President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un having dinner in Hanoi, his government’s statistics agency released data that showed a step backward on a domestic problem.
South Korea’s birth rate dropped to a record low of 0.98 in 2018, Statistics Korea said on February 27. The news was expected, signaled just a month earlier by the group Moon created to deal with the problem, the Presidential Committee on Aging Society and Population Policy.
At that moment, the news meant less to Moon than the collapse of the U.S.-North Korea summit did the next day. Having spent so much time and political capital trying to persuade Trump and other world leaders that North Korea is ready to bargain, the outcome in Hanoi did not reinforce his view.
Photo credit: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
As he nears the halfway point of his five-year term, Moon should rethink his priorities and change the course of his presidency. He should spend less time trying to bend North Korea and more time fixing the economic, educational, and social conditions that are leading South Koreans to give up on the idea of having children. Left unchanged, forecasts show South Korea’s population will start to shrink around 2027.
He should spend less time trying to bend North Korea and more time fixing the economic, educational, and social conditions that are leading South Koreans to give up on the idea of having children.
Birth rate data is also a measurement of public sentiment—one with a long horizon rather than the short-term snapshot of opinion polls. It shows behavior that reflects the most basic question of all: Do people feel happy and confident enough in themselves, their community, and their nation to build the next generation?
Birth rates drop dramatically when a country moves from poverty to affluence. Parents stop thinking they need more children for economic support or, when a country is quite poor and health at greater risk, as insurance in case children don’t survive. And as nations become wealthier, people spend more of their young adulthood getting educated, leaving them to marry and have children later in life. By the birth rate standard, South Korea’s economic transformation is one of the most successful in the world.
But a country’s birth rate can drop too far, creating a demographic imbalance that threatens economic growth, which is what has happened to South Korea. Its 2018 birth rate was again the lowest among the world’s developed countries. The reading marked the first time the country’s birth rate fell below the 1.0 threshold. That means that last year, the typical South Korean woman was more likely not to have a child in her lifetime than to have even one.
South Korea’s birth rate fell below the replacement rate, in which women have 2.1 babies, in the 1980s. Presidents dating back to Kim Dae-jung in the late 1990s have tried to confront this demographic change. Kim created the Ministry of Gender Equality (now called the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family) to improve economic opportunities for women and reduce inequality that is shaped by old hierarchical traditions of men over women and old over young that Koreans begin adhering to in middle school.
That ministry and others in the government have thrown a lot of money at the problem. In 2018, government spending on combating the low birth rate was around $25 billion, Reuters recently reported, almost half the level of South Korea’s spending on defense.
It has all made no difference, in large part because the government focused on small-note causes rather than bigger, harder ones. For instance, they zeroed in on the costs of children in their young years and came up with ideas like building more day care centers and subsidizing fees. They put no pressure on South Korean businesses to retain and promote women workers, however. Virtually no major employers in the country offer assistance, such as on-site day care, for employees who are mothers of young children. And forget about holding a candid discussion about the role of men in helping out around the house.
Some of the government’s efforts have been klutzy and unfocused. The Park Geun-hye administration put out birth information by region, ostensibly trying to stir some competitiveness in reproduction. Just a few weeks ago, the ministry criticized the pop music industry, one of a relative handful of avenues in which South Korean women can become rich (though only after their agencies). In a revision of guidelines to TV producers and broadcasters—rules that are just one example of how the South Korean government exerts far greater control over the country’s media than is widely understood outside the country—the ministry suggested a restriction on the number of K-pop stars who appear on shows. When it critiqued the appearance of the stars, some South Koreans said it went too far.
The Moon government cut this year’s budget on lifting the birth rate to below $20 billion this year, in large part because the subsidies and strategies were getting too far afield.
In December, the Presidential Committee on Aging Society and Population Policy said it would change direction to focus on “improving the quality of life of every generation”, according to Yonhap, rather than being so focused on the costs faced by parents of young children. For one thing, the committee said, more needed to be done to make Korean employers retain mothers of young children. Another goal, the committee said, is to get more Korean men to take the paternity leave they are lawfully afforded when a child is born.
That’s all still nibbling at the edges of the problem. South Koreans are getting married later, if at all, and having fewer children because they are worried about their own economic prospects now and don’t believe things will be better for children they might raise. While the government zeroed in on the cost of diapers and day care, it did nothing to change the feeling young South Koreans have of being trapped in an educational and hiring system that gives them little chance of rising up. It needs to create job opportunities and labor mobility.
South Koreans are getting married later, if at all, and having fewer children because they are worried about their own economic prospects now and don’t believe things will be better for children they might raise.
Moon has been bold and adept at navigating the competing interests of North Korea and the United States, perhaps even manipulating Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump into holding their summits. But he has been weak on economic matters. He made several mistakes, such as lifting the country’s minimum wage too far too fast and limiting the country’s nuclear power industry just as it was becoming globally competitive. His approach to the birth rate decline shows none of the boldness he applied to the North Korea situation.
Nearly halfway done as president, Moon should de-emphasize denuclearization and peace with North Korea, which seems feckless as ever. No matter how hard he works on them, neither is likely to occur by the end of his term. His legacy depends on giving South Koreans more confidence in their economic future.
In a photo taken on May 29, 2018 an elderly resident sits in her garden in Yeoncheon, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
Empty Aging in South Korea
Elizabeth Hervey Stephen, Associate Professor of Demography, Georgetown University and Author of South Korea’s Demographic Dividend: Echoes of the Past or Prologue to the Future
Evan Ramstad is absolutely correct to bring attention to the true crisis facing South Korea, which is internal rather than external. While North Korea remains a feckless neighbor, South Korean millennials are marrying later—if at all—and having fewer children than previous generations, creating an imbalance in the population.
My recent book, South Korea’s Demographic Dividend: Echoes of the Past or Prologue to the Future, describes the societal issues related to low fertility. As a result of low fertility for nearly 40 years, there are already 1.2 million more elderly (ages 65+) South Koreans than persons aged 0-15 as of 2019. This disparity is expected to grow to 2 million more elderly than young persons by 2021, and the gap will continue to grow indefinitely.
Evan Ramstad correctly asserts that it is incumbent upon South Korean president Moon Jae-in to address the low fertility issue. To date, South Korean government policies put into place have had no effect at all, and unfortunately, pronatalist policies in most other countries have not shown positive results either.
Norway tried “liberal” measures such as state-run day-care facilities for families, yet Norway’s total fertility rate (the number of children a woman can be expected to have during her lifetime, given current fertility rates) has declined from 1.96 in 2008 to 1.56 in 2018.
Other countries, such as Singapore, have opted for “conservative” means, offering baby bonuses and a matching savings program up to $10,300 for the first and second children, increasing to $16,200 for third and fourth children, and $20,600 for the fifth or more children (all values in US dollars). And yet Singapore’s total fertility rate in 2018 was 1.14 according to official government data.
What are the long-term implications of such a low birth rate in South Korea? The short-term concern is an economic slowdown. For the long term, who will take care of the elderly? Japan, another aging country, uses robots and imports nurses from Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines as part of its solution to caring for the elderly.
South Korea is already facing societal schisms. Because its culture is built on the Confucian tradition of parents taking care of children in expectation of children taking care of the elderly, South Korea was slow to incorporate a national social security system. As a result, South Korea has the highest poverty rate for the elderly of any developed country, with 46 percent of persons over the age of 65 living in poverty as of 2015. This rate can be contrasted to neighboring Japan’s rate of 20 percent.
Perhaps an even greater societal concern is the rate of suicide among the elderly. Starting in the 1950s, young adults flocked to the urban areas to participate in the burgeoning economy, leaving the elderly behind in rural areas. The combination of a high poverty rate and low levels of contact with urban family members has resulted in South Korean elderly having the highest suicide rates of all developed countries. In 2008, the rate was 160 per 100,000 persons aged 75 and over compared to the average for developed countries of 19.3 per 100,000. Nearly one in five South Korean suicides was a result of ingestion of pesticides, particularly the toxic herbicide paraquat, which was readily available in rural areas.
In response to the alarming rates, the Korea Suicide Prevention Centre was established in 2011 and sales of paraquat were prohibited. The absolute reduction in the number of suicides was greatest among men, the elderly, and in rural areas. The reduction in pesticide suicides contributed to 56 percent of the decline in overall suicides between 2011 and 2013. The suicide rate for men aged 70–79 years had increased by 12.9 percent annually from 1993 to 2004 but has been decreasing by 7.5 percent annually since 2011.
Similar declines have been noted in all ages for both elderly men and women. Still, South Korea has the second highest overall suicide rate of all developed countries and the anomie of the rural elderly, in particular, remains a concern. This will only be exacerbated with the elderly’s reliance on an only child.
China has already experienced similar societal issues following its one-child policy, particularly an imbalance in the sex ratio—an excess of men to women. With an estimated 34 million more men than women in China, the country is left with “bare branches,” that is men who will be unable to marry and will live without the support normally provided by wives and children. This will reverberate throughout the country as the unmarried men age and have no one to care for them.
South Korea also experienced a short period of an elevated sex ratio at birth; in 1990, the sex ratio at birth reached 116.5 boys born per 100 girls born. This was accomplished largely through prenatal sex identification techniques, which were banned in 1994. Although the South Korean sex ratio is now within the normal range of 105 boys born per 100 girls born, there are cohorts of marriageable age with severe mismatches. For instance, in 2019, there are 263,000 more males than females aged 25-29, thus carrying forward the sex ratio of 116. This creates a short-term marriage problem as the cohorts with the imbalanced sex ratio age into middle age; however, the never married elderly men will have no children to rely upon, setting up the anomie cycle described above.
The ability of South Korea to make policy changes, such as lowering elderly suicide rates through the ban on paraquat and the ability to get the sex ratio back within a normal range, is evidence that the national government can alter demographic change at a macro level. Now can the country make the necessary changes to the hierarchical male-dominated economic structure such that young adults gain confidence in their economic future as Ramstad notes? Without the concomitant societal shifts that address women’s and young people’s economic opportunities, no hope exists that any pronatalist policy the Moon government passes will have any short-term or long-term success.
Evan Ramstad Responds
In addition to her research into efforts by countries to reverse declining birth or fertility rates, Dr. Elizabeth Hervey Stephen’s essay succinctly describes the other half of South Korea’s demographic trouble—its sizable and fast-growing elderly population. And in that, one data point stands distressingly above all others: 46 percent of South Koreans over age 65 live in poverty. That’s essentially one out of two. Why does the country accept this?
Photo credit: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
One big reason is that the elderly, particularly the poor, are less visible than the young people who fill the coffee shops, bars, and college campuses in cities. The young hang out, take more courses, add credentials, and wait for the right job to come along. The elderly are on the fringes. They are in hospitals or “silver” homes, in smaller cities or towns, or out of sight in facilities up in the mountains.
Dr. Stephen finds that none of the top-down approaches, not the “liberal” efforts in Norway nor the “conservative” ones in Singapore, provide a model for South Korea to reverse its birth-rate decline. That makes it all the more imperative for South Korea, led by the Moon government, to invent its way out.
To begin, it must confront the demographic problem for what it is: a crisis. It must come to the center of the national agenda. This is not a matter simply for a presidential commission. And the North Korea situation, so dominant in the political discourse of the Moon administration, should not distract South Koreans from looking at this crisis with clear eyes and attacking it.
It must confront the demographic problem for what it is: a crisis. It must come to the center of the national agenda.
Elizabeth Hervey Stephen Responds
Evan Ramstad is 100 percent correct that the demographic situation in South Korea is a crisis. But what are the options?
One option that we had not yet covered in this exchange is immigration. South Korea traditionally has not embraced immigration, but it may be one of the few options available.
Already, the “leftover” middle-aged men living in rural areas work with marriage brokers to import brides from as far as Vietnam, China, the Philippines, and Mongolia. The only aspect that this solves, though, is that the man is married. The foreign brides are often miserable without requisite language skills and may be living in poverty or being abused. The homogeneity of South Korea often leads to children from mixed families being ostracized and having difficulty in school if the mothers don’t speak Korean.
South Korea traditionally has not embraced immigration, but it may be one of the few options available.
Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
If entire families of immigrants were allowed to settle permanently in Korea; however, this would add workers and could potentially increase fertility rates since immigrant workers would be in their prime reproductive ages. For the past several years, France has had one of the highest fertility rates in all of Europe; one in eight births is to an immigrant mother. Demographers estimate that foreigners increased the birth rate by only 0.1 point; that is, in 2005, France’s total fertility rate was 1.92 and would have been 1.82 without immigrants. But with fertility as low as South Korea’s, even an increase of 0.1 would be welcome.
But would the immigrants themselves be welcomed?
The government and society at large must ask these difficult questions.
Evan Ramstad is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Ramstad has served as one of the leading analysts of the economic and business scene in Korea. A journalist since 1987, he is currently deputy business editor on the business news desk of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Dr. Elizabeth (Betsi) Hervey Stephen is an associate professor of Demography at Georgetown University and has now taught well over 2000 students in her 32-year teaching career. She is a senior scholar in the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. She has served in numerous administrative positions including chair of the Department of Demography and she was the director of the Science, Technology and International Affairs Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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