[Editorial] 50m population

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jun 21, 2012 - 20:38
  • Updated : Jun 21, 2012 - 20:38
Korea’s population including foreign residents is projected to surpass 50 million this Saturday. It is estimated to peak at 52.16 million in 2030 before declining gradually to 49.81 million in 2045, according to a projection by Statistics Korea.

It took about half a century for the country to double its population, which stood around 25 million in the early 1960s.

Korea now accounts for 0.71 percent of the world population, up from 0.61 percent in 1983 when its population topped 40 million.

Coupled with its per capita income above $20,000, the landmark population figure appears to give Koreans some sense of pride about their achievements over the past decades.

Local media has shed light on Korea becoming the seventh country with a population of over 50 million whose per capita income exceeds $20,000.

The immediate predecessor was the U.K., which reached those statistical landmarks in 1996. It followed Japan, the U.S., France, Italy and Germany.

The latest projection is also less alarming than the 2006 prediction by the national statistics office that Korea’s population would peak at 49.34 million in 2018 and then dwindle at a fast pace.

What statistics experts had overlooked at the time were the increasing influx of foreigners and the birthrate rise, with the life expectancy also being extended more rapidly than expected.

The number of expatriates here, which surpassed the 1 million mark in 2007, was nearly 1.4 million as of the end of last year, according to figures from Korea Immigration Service.

The fertility rate, which remained at 1.08 children per woman in 2005, rose to 1.24 in 2011 due to more support programs and medical advances that enabled more older women to have babies. It is now forecast to increase gradually to 1.42 by 2045.

Over the long term, however, the demographic projection gives a grave warning on the workforce being drastically reduced by the rapid aging of Korea’s population and the low birthrate.

Effective and comprehensive measures should be worked out to prevent a possible demographic disaster that could hold down economic growth and deplete social vitality.

In this sense, passing the milestone of a 50 million-strong population with a per capita income of more than $20,000 should serve as an occasion for Koreans to renew their resolution to overcome future obstacles to bigger accomplishments rather than revel in what they have achieved.

According to the statistics office, the number of Koreans aged 15-64, which stood at 35.98 million, or about 73 percent of the entire population, last year, is estimated to peak at 37.04 million in 2016 before being reduced by more than 11 million to 25.34 million by 2050.

Working-age people are forecast to account for less than half the population in 2060, by which time their number is seen to further decrease to 21.87 million. This means that working-age people will have to support the same number of elderly persons and children.

A recent report by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was quoted by a local financial institution this week, predicted that Korea’s population would become the most aged in the world by 2045, with its average age at 50.

Korea recently exceeded the U.S. in the average age of its workforce and will soon overtake most European countries, according to the RBS report.

Some experts also point out the estimated long-term fertility rate of 1.42 could be pulled down as deteriorating economic conditions weigh down married couples’ wish to have babies.

The expected shrinkage of the workforce has been cited as a main factor in many predictions that Korea’s growth potential will continue to decline from the current level of 3.4 percent in the coming decades.

What was the most alarming to Koreans was a recent forecast by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that the country’s growth potential would fall to 1 percent by 2031, the lowest among its 34 member states except for Luxembourg.

Such a gloomy outlook should be taken seriously and serve as a catalyst for Koreans to be away from complacency and strengthen determination to make another leap forward.

It would be increasingly needed to boost the economic activity of senior citizens and women, especially well-educated women, many of whom stay at home.

A lesson could be learned, at least in a selective manner, from the cases of some advanced nations that have sought immigrant workers to help maintain their demographic dynamics.