South Korea’s desperate war on demographic decline

Population decline threatens the country. The government offers financial incentives to young couples. In the last decade, more than 101.6 trillion won have been offered to tackle the crisis. The record low of 1.08 children per mother was reached in 2005. Statistics indicate that people over 65 could represent 24.5% of the population by 2030.

SEOUL (AsiaNews) –  An aging population and a low birth rate represent a serious threat to South Korea, Asia’s fourth largest economy, especially now that it faces an economic slowdown.

In order to counter the trend, the South Korean government is almost desperately providing economic incentives to couples to have more children.

South Korea's total fertility rate – the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime – stood at 1.24 in 2015, much lower than the replacement level of 2.1 that would keep South Korea's population of 51 million stable.

Last year, the number of South Koreans over 65 topped 6.76 million, or 13.2 per cent of the country's population, according to the statistics office. Nations become an "aged society" if people over 65 make up 14 per cent or more.

Statistics Korea reports that people aged over 65 could reach more than 12.9 million, or 24.5 per cent of the population, by 2030.

In light of the situation, the government is trying to increase what is one of the lowest birth rates in the world at a time when many young people are postponing marriage because of the country’s economic problems.

Earlier this week, acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn called on officials to address South Korea’s baby crunch and encourage young people to have more babies.

The government has spent more than 101.6 trillion won (US$ 87 billion) from 2006 to 2016 to encourage people to do just that; however, so far it has not been enough to boost the low birth rate.

This year, the government said it has set aside more than 22.4 trillion won (US$ 19.3 billion) to help raise the country's birth rate.

Lee Suk-hwa, head of Cheongyang County, said that last year his administration began to give 10 million won (US$ 8,600) to parents who have a fourth child in an effort to encourage more young people to have more children in rural areas.

Kim Man-soo, mayor of Bucheon, a city near Seoul, said his municipality revised an ordinance to offer, among other things, 10 million won to parents who have a fourth baby to boost the city's birth rate – the lowest in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul. In the past, Bucheon only gave 500,000 won to parents who had a third child.

Wando Island, in the south, offers a lump sum of five million won (US$ 4,300) and another 15 million won (US$ 13,000) in instalments over three years for those who have a fifth child.

In 1960, South Korea adopted a policy of birth control to stem rapid population growth at a time when the country was rebuilding its economy from the ashes of the 1950-1953 Korean War.

At that time, the government sent officials into rural homes to explain its family planning. Officials encouraged people to have only one child and provided free of vasectomy in an attempt to lower the rapid population growth.

The aggressive birth control policy lowered the total fertility rate to 2.06 in 1983 from 6.0 in 1960.

Afterwards, it dropped to a record low of 1.08 in 2005, a dramatic demographic transition that set off alarm bells with respect to South Korea’s population policy.

Since then the government has been struggling to reverse the demographic decline by offering a number of incentives to young people.

Government slogans on childbirth have also undergone a change from dire warnings to hope. One of the slogans issued in 2005 read "a baby is the joy of a family and hope for the future."