05/10/2006, 00.00
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Low birth rate data released on Parents' Day

by Pino Cazzaniga
Some 438,000 children were born last year, 8 per cent fewer than the year before, a sign that the country is aging. People over 65 are now 7 per cent of the population but will be 20 per cent in 2026.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – May 9 in South Korea is Parents' Day and the streets and squares of Seoul take on a joyful look. Children with their bright smiles warm the hearts of their grandparents. In the subway teenagers give up their seats to their elders. It is the day for those who gave life, but this year celebrations are somewhat bittersweet. The National Statistical Office (NSO) released in fact findings that indicate that the country's adults are making fewer children than ever before. In 2005 the birthrate dropped drastically, down 8 per cent for 438,000 newborn.

Among countries who are member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Korea has the lowest birth rate, 1.08, compared to 2.05 for the United States, 1.9 for France, 1.33 for Italy and 1.29 for Japan.

Indeed, the birthrate has been climbing a bit in other OECD countries since the beginning of the century, but in South Korea it has been steadily declining for the past 30 years, falling far below the 2.2 that would be required to maintain the population at its current level (48 million).

Should the trend remain unchanged, warns Health Ministry official Kim Yong-hyun, South Korea' s population might fall below the 40 million mark by 2050.

According to NSO analysts the declining birthrate is attributable to rapid social changes. People are getting married later (now the average is 27.7) because women are spending more time getting an education and are more active in the economy. However, not all share this view.

"In Sweden and France, both the fertility rate and the ratio of economically active women are high, in contrast with Korea," said Lee Sam-sik of the Korea Institute for Health and Social Welfare. "They have government policies to boost women's economic participation, such as rules on day care centers and maternity leaves and a social culture favourable to working women."

The cost of children's education also impacts negatively on the number of births. Education is second only to good health care in what Korean mothers want to provide their children.

A lower birthrate is also a sign of an aging society. Life expectancy has considerably risen in South Korea. Just half a century ago it was under 60 years, but now it stands at 73 for men and 80 for women. This is good as long as it comes with a good quality of life and this is not always the case. On this Parents' Day, welfare centres and charitable organisations fed many elderly looking in need of a free meal. Today, the over 65 already constitute 7 per cent of the population; by 2026, they will represent 20 per cent according to demographers.

The day after Parents' Day, the media commented the NSO's findings in grim tones. "The government does not appear to be taking the matter seriously," read a Joongang editorial. "Plans to fight the fall in the birth rate should have been prepared since 1983, when the fertility rate was 2.1. We cannot postpone the settlement of the matter any longer. This is now a national crisis."

The government seems to be responding and moving in the right direction. It has announced plans to boost the birthrate by spending US$ 31 billion dollars in childcare and pre-school education.

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