The plan was announced through a government report released Sunday, which stressed that the nation’s increasing number of delayed marriages is one of the biggest factors behind the low fertility rate, which currently stands at 1.21 children per woman.
To encourage more young Koreans to get married, the central government plans to create opportunities for them to meet future spouses, such as volunteer meetings or cultural events supported by regional governments, starting next year.
Korea is not the first country in Asia to offer government-sponsored matchmaking services as part of the national measure to boost its fertility rate. In Singapore, the government’s Social Development Unit has been offering matchmaking services for its citizens, including dating games and an online speed dating service, as part of its population policies.
“Dating is one of the most personal activities in anyone’s life,” said researcher Cho Sung-ho from the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. “It’s questionable if it is appropriate for the government to get involved in the dating lives of its citizens. When the state is encouraging the young population to get married, what is it saying about those who opt not to get married?”
As single parenthood, especially of unwed women, is often socially stigmatized here, Korea has one of the lowest out-of-wedlock birthrates in the world, marking 2.1 percent as of 2010. This was dramatically lower than the rates of other countries like Ireland (64.1 percent) and Norway (55 percent).
Paik Young-gyung, an anthropology professor at Korea National Open University said the government’s demographic policies -- encouraging people to get married -- do not guarantee one’s rights to become a parent regardless of his or her marital status. “It does not recognize it as a right, but rather something that is given out of benevolence,” she said. “It also applies to one’s rights as a citizen and his or her right to housing. (While the government wants to boost its fertility rate), not all pregnancies in Korea end up in childbirths.”
Factors behind the increasing number of delayed marriages in Korea include the growing number of young Koreans who prioritize education or career over forming a family and the expensive cost of weddings, housing and child care. On top of encouraging young Koreans to get married, the government has come up with a number of population policies targeting citizens in their 20s and 30s, such as housing benefits and discounts on wedding venues.
However, critics of the government’s population policies said the current measures are not conscious of the changing cultural and social situations faced by the younger generation. For example, not all Koreans who choose not to have children do it because they can’t afford to get married, said Paik Young-gyung, an anthropology professor at Korea National Open University.
“We are living in a world where people have different values, such as individual happiness. When an individual wants to not get married or not have children, for whatever reasons he or she may have, that decision must be respected,” she told The Korea Herald. “If the government is giving housing benefits to those who get married only, we are faced with this question: ‘Do young people who wish to stay single not deserve that benefit as much as young married couples do?’”
Korea first implemented demographic policies to boost its fertility rate in 2006. Yet the nations’ birthrate last year was exactly the same as that in 2006, indicating the policies have failed.
If the current birthrate remains steady, almost 15 percent of the population will be 65 or older by 2018, and the figure will rise to 50 percent by 2100, according to government data. The number of Korean schoolchildren is expected to drop to 5.61 million by 2030 from the current 10 million.
Such government predictions have deepened concerns over the country’s fiscal stability and productivity.
“The government needs to work on the issues that need to be solved now, rather than preparing for what’s going to happen in the future,” said professor Paik, who stressed that the demographic policies probably wouldn’t be effective if the government does not try to tackle some of the biggest social problems faced by Koreans today, including unemployment and social inequality.
“What the fertility rates show us is that life is difficult for the majority of Koreans right now. Getting married and having children shouldn’t be such big deals as they are in Korea today. The ideal society is where an individual feels that getting married and having children are something natural, rather than something that requires a lot of work and sacrifice.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)