There is no question that South Korea has to address its low birthrate, a chronic problem that can deepen problems affecting a wide range of fields such as the economy, welfare, defense and national competitiveness in the coming years.
Strangely enough, the country’s low fertility rate did not get full attention from the presidents of the past two administrations. In this context, it is an encouraging sign that President Yoon Suk Yeol presided over a meeting of the Presidential Committee on Low Birthrate and Aging Society on Tuesday -- the first time the head of state has attended in seven years.
“Although the government has spent an astronomical budget of 280 trillion won ($214 billion) over the past 15 years, the total fertility rate got to 0.78 (in 2022),” Yoon said.
Korea’s fertility rate, which shows how many children the average woman will have over her lifetime, has been on a downward path in recent years. The rate of 0.78 is the world’s lowest and disappointingly below the “replacement rate” of about 2.1 needed to sustain a population.
Last year, the number of newborn babies stood at 249,000. If the current trend goes unchecked, the figure is feared to shrink to around 100,000 in 10 years.
The stark outlook raises a host of questions about the sustainability of Korean society in general. The steep decline in population can threaten to undermine economic vitality and growth. It can also make it hard for the military to secure young men under the mandatory conscription system. Paying for rising welfare costs in a country where aging is accelerating will be disrupted if the low birthrate continues.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare unveiled a set of new policy proposals to help address the low fertility rate and encourage people to get married and have children. One policy floated by the ministry is to ease requirements for housing loans for newlyweds. Housing is one of the crucial factors that couples consider whether they will settle and raise children. But slightly eased loan conditions are unlikely to have a visible impact.
The government plans to triple the number of households offered child care services from the current 78,000 by 2027, and increase the number of public day care centers by 500 per year. Expanding child care service infrastructure is of course necessary, but experts still question whether such target figures are sufficient.
One policy missing in the government plans involves the salaries working parents get during their parental leave. The maximum salary for parental leave is now set at 1.5 million won, but the amount is often too small for working parents to manage a household, when one of them stays home and takes care of children due to the surging cost of living, experts say.
More discussions are needed on parental leave compensation, even though different government agencies including budget and employment have to hammer out the details and gauge long-term feasibility.
Reactions to the new policy plans appear largely lackluster among experts and citizens alike, as in actuality, there have been no “bold measures and concentrated investment” as President Yoon called for during the Tuesday meeting.
Yoon also pointed out that the issue of Korea’s low birthrate cannot be fixed by government policies alone, while social and cultural conditions make it difficult to have babies and raise children.
For many Koreans in their 20s and 30s, marriage is unappealing in many aspects. Rising housing costs, shrinking job opportunities, lack of child support and day care facilities in the workplace and uncertainty in the economy all combine to put pressure on couples to reconsider forging a family and raising children.
At the request of Yoon, the presidential committee is set to reexamine current policies and come up with new proposals. Given that the government promised to devise “bold” policies on the low fertility rate but failed to do so in practice, it remains to be seen whether policymakers will take action aimed at preventing, or at least delaying, Korea's population crisis.