South Korea is moving towards a low or no growth future. The country’s fertility rate could dip below one child per woman. The economic impact includes closed clinics and lower powder milk production. Young people face hardship and societal inequalities. The Moon government plans reforms whilst the Church highlights its commitment. The director of the diocesan centre in Daejeon speaks for the family.
Daejeon (AsiaNews) – South Korean women will soon have less than one child each. Such a crisis will touch the entire society. The Catholic Church in South Korea is called to rediscover the family as a tool of evangelisation. Fr Choi Pio Sang Soon, director of the John Paul II Diocesan Centre for Marriage and the family in Daejeon spoke to AsiaNews about the issues, challenges and possible solutions to the problem of low fertility in South Korea.
Less than one child per woman in 2018
Some 357,000 children were born in South Korea in 2017, 12 per cent less than in 2016 (406,200). Figures for the first months of 2018 are even more worrying. Between January and April, there were 117,300 births, a further drop of 9,1 per cent. If this trend continues, the total fertility rate for this year will be less than one child per woman. This is reality, not theory.
The total fertility rate in South Korea has been extremely low since 2001, but now it has reached an embarrassing low, less than one child. In 2016, Statistics Korea, South Korea’s national statistical office, forecast that the population would start to decline in 2031, but if the existing trend is maintained, this might begin as early as 2023.
South Korea moving towards low or no growth
Low fertility does not only reduce the overall vitality of a society but also reduces its productivity, consumption levels and economic activities. It also increases social charges. Population decline leads to labour shortages, the collapse of the domestic market and higher taxes. Our country will become a nation with chronic low or no growth.
If in this day and age the size of the population does not make a country a major power, its decline nevertheless affects the overall economy; above all in terms of the financial burden of pensions and health insurance, which in the future will weigh heavily on younger South Koreans.
Low fertility has already cast a wider shadow:
Meanwhile, youth unemployment is up, which makes it even harder to get married and start a family. Furthermore, active support for irregular and temporary workers is lacking. People who have a temporary job ask themselves "what to do" when their contract ends. They are also paid low wages, 50 per cent lower than regular or permanent work. For this reason, young people cannot marry, start a family, and feed and educate their children. Because of low wages, young people get married later and later. In 2017, the average age for marriage was 32.9 years for men and 30.2 for women. In 2010, it was 29.5 and 26.8.
A problem that affects everyone, Catholics included
Low fertility is a problem that affects everyone, including the Christian community, even if it is hard to see the crisis. Many people know about the extremely low birth rate. Even Catholics are aware of this. But not everyone perceives its true gravity. The mind knows, but the heart doesn’t.
According to Catholic Church data, in 2017 11 per cent of the South Korean population was Catholic. Those in the 10-19 age group are 6.6 per cent. Since 2012, the number of the faithful between 30 and 40 years has been constantly dropping. Every year, those over 60 increase. In particular, 65-year-old believers are now 18.4 per cent; in 2016 they were 17.4 per cent.
The Korean Catholic Church too is aging. Except for those aged 75 to 79, the number of faithful in all other age groups has dropped compared to the previous year. Church marriages are also down, both between Catholics and mixed ones. In 2008, 26,182 couples got married in church. In 2017, only 15,842 did.
Only 5 per cent of Koreans are against marriage
More than half of all young South Koreans want to marry, as evidenced by the survey on youth status published by the Korea National Youth Policy Institute in 2017. Only 5.3 per cent of young people think they do not need marriage whilst 4.3 per cent think they do not need children. For about 53.9 per cent marriage is a duty, and for 40.7 per cent it is a choice. As for the children, 54.1 per cent answered that they must have them, whilst 41.4 per cent said that they might or might not have them.
Negative answers about marriage and raising a child are only 4-5 per cent of the total. Yet the decline in marriages and births is quite real. The Korea National Youth Policy Institute asked young people why they hesitated. The latter said that getting married is too expensive, especially when it comes to housing: renting a house or flat is expensive. If you include the price of a house, the total cost for a wedding on average is around US$ 190,000. Housing represents 70 per cent of the total cost.
In 2017, the government came up with a specific plan to tackle this problem, but this is not enough. We have to create jobs for young people and reduce the wage gap between irregular and permanent workers, and between women and men. In South Korea, women earn 36.7 per cent less than men, the lowest figure among OECD countries.
We need to reflect about society
Economic reasons are not the only factor for fewer marriages and births. One must reflect on the "empty formality and vanity" of South Korea’s marriage culture. It is necessary to reflect on the immature social atmosphere and free it from the "tendency towards materialism".
Our society has developed into a social, cultural and economic structure in which young people find it difficult to get married and to have and raise children. Society ignores human dignity, using the person as a tool for its purposes, to accumulate more money. The final result of all this is low fertility.
The Church must announce to young people "teachings on human love and life, accompany them with gentleness and tenderness, helping them to come out of their selfishness and the secular values that reject marriage, family and life.” It does so through some programmes like Choice, where unmarried young people can find themselves by talking to others, recognising the importance of the family to which they belong.
Another programme is the "fiancés weekend", open to couples that are married or engaged to be married. Through this, couples recognise that their spouse is a gift from God and learn true love and the importance of life. It is a time of grace, during which one hears the voice of God, unplugging every other noise. Another project is the "Wedding at Cana" course, which prepares couples for the wedding, imparting information about their bodies in addition to theological notions.
Politics must look to the "human person"
In 2005, demographic policies were adopted to increase the number of births, without considering the place of people. For this reason, they did not solve the problem, which indeed got bigger.
Last December, the current government changed the paradigm by establishing a new commission, oriented "towards the human person". In this context, on 5 July 2018 the authorities announced a key objective: "A happy country in which to work and raise children". Realising such a goal with individual policies in specific fields is difficult. A comprehensive policy covering the whole cycle of life is needed.
Above all, we need to consider young people, women's work, housing, jobs, medical care, the education system and respect for all births, ensuring equal treatment for single mothers. "Public care in childcare" emphasises that giving birth should not be an individual sacrifice, especially for women.
Diocese of Daejeon: preparing young people
The Department of Family Pastoral Care of the Diocese of Daejeon includes training programmes for families.
For example, the World-Wide Marriage Encounter (WWME) is designed to help couples to renew and deepen the love that unites them, through dialogue. Started in 1958 by Spanish priest, Fr Gabriel Calvo, the WWME can be found all over the world. In South Korea, it started in 1984 in Daejeon. So far, 8,700 couples have had this experience.
For the diocese, it is crucial to prepare fathers. Many do not know their role and lose their place in the family. This programme helps participants rediscover their identity as a man and a father, and to reconcile family relationships. It teaches a father’s true vocation, which comes from Our Father.
Mothers too take part in the programme, learning to perform a different role in the family. They are helped to find their identity, solve family problems, and meet their true vocation, which comes from the Lord.
The Familiaris Consortio teaches believers how to practise the magisterium of the Church in everyday life, through concrete examples. It is based on texts by Pope John Paul II (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body; Familiaris Consortio) and on the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis.
Evangelising families, the first place to welcome human life
The demographic crisis means the crisis of the family. In all this, the Korean Church must recognise that the Christian family is an agent of evangelisation.
To evangelise means to recognise a gift of God among us, and this gift is to give oneself in relationships with others. An effective method of evangelisation is not an oppressive or rude one; it is not forcing, preaching or judging. It must begin with accompanying, discerning, integrating.
Since God loves us, so we must insert God’s love in the hearts of others. Thus, evangelisation is not giving something to others that they did not have before but helping them to know "who I am" and to find God’s love in the journey of life. The first starting point of all this is the family: the first place to welcome human life.