Jan 5 2021
South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world. The COVID-19 pandemic is raising fears that the number of births in the new year will decline further. Last month, President Moon Jae-in launched several policies aimed at addressing the low birth rate, including cash incentives for couples.
SEOUL – South Korea recorded the first a drop in its population, a trend that could worsen as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic with its major economic fallout.
According to Ministry of the Interior and Safety data, the South Korean population declined by 20,838 in 2020 over 2019.
This represents a 10.65 per cent drop year-on-year, with 275,815 births in 2020 against 307.764 deaths, which have jumped by 3.1 per cent. South Korea’s population now stands at just under 51.8 million.
Official projections indicated 297,000 birth annually between 2020 and 2025, but last year’s actual births were lower by more than 20,000.
South Korea has the lowest fertility rate of in the world, 0.84 in the third quarter of last year, a far cry from the 2.1 the United Nations says is needed to balance the death rate.
In a statement the Interior ministry said that this was the first time that “the number of newborn babies failed to make up for the number of deaths” since the country started collecting population data after the Korean War in 1953.
“This is worse than expected,” said Choi Jin-ho, a professor of sociology at Ajou University in Suwon, south of Seoul. “And due to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of births in the new year is feared to fall further.”
For Choi rising unemployment, mounting housing costs, and other financial burdens associated with having children have deterred many young Koreans from marrying or starting a family over the past year.
Many small and middle-sized companies don’t give their employees parental leave and women there have their careers cut short if they get pregnant. Under these circumstances, many women choose to avoid having babies.
In an editorial, the English-language Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper urged the South Korean government to “fundamentally change our social environment and structure that discourages couples from having babies,” it said. “The decreasing population leads to a critical lack of economic vitality and potential growth,” it added.
Population decline puts a country to a test. In addition to greater pressure on public spending as demand for healthcare services and pensions rise, a declining youth population also leads to labour shortages that have a direct impact on the economy.
South Korea’s employment policies are not favourable to women who want to have children. In large part, this is because in South Korea women struggle to find a balance between work and the other demands of life.
Soaring real estate prices are another major issue. For Ms Hyun-yu Kim, rapidly rising property prices also discourage young couples. “In order to have children, you need to have your own home,” she explained. “But this has become an impossible dream in Korea.
Ms Kim is unconvinced by the incentives offered by the government. “It’s expensive to raise a child. The government providing an extra couple hundred thousand won won’t solve our problems.”
Last month, President Moon Jae-in launched a number of policies aimed at addressing the low birth rate, including cash incentives for families.
Under the scheme, starting in 2022, every child born will receive a cash bonus of 2 million won (US$ 1,850) to help cover prenatal expenses, on top of a monthly payout of 300,000 won handed out until the baby turns one. The incentive will increase to 500,000 won (US$ 463) every month from 2025.
Successive South Korean governments have spent an estimated 185 trillion won (US1 billion) over the past 14 years on incentives to boost the number of births.