Korea’s biggest family buck the growing one-child national stereotype
Amid a backdrop of a looming demographic crisis in South Korea, due to one of the lowest birthrates in the world and an aging population, the country’s largest nuclear family ― with 13 children ― makes a welcome change.
Attempts to boost the current rate of around 1 child per family have proved unsuccessful, with worries over costs ― approximately 262 million won ($231,000) for birth-to-college expenses according to a January report by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs ― and a trend for marriage later in life.
But for Kim Seok-tae, 52, a pastor, and his wife Um Gye-suk, 47, the gift of having a big family took precedence.
“Children are a gift from God, and we were very happy and felt blessed ... we decided to thank God and be ready for more if God blessed us,” explained Kim in an e-mail interview for The Korea Herald.
Although initially the couple had hoped for twins, they never planned to have so many children. And despite Um’s difficult 18-hour labor with their eldest, the couple’s brood now extends from Kim Binna, 23, to Kim Onsaemi, the youngest, aged 3. And they would not be averse to more.
The family of 15 pose for a family photo in front of their house in Gumi.
The family attracts plenty of attention. Kim and Um have even been picked by the government as ambassadors for the promotion of childbirth.
The reaction from others has not always been favorable but many have now come around to the idea, said Kim Seok-tae.
“Some people spoke ill of us in the beginning. But now, people say they envy us. Neighbors and teachers compliment us for all of the children being generally good kids, though they have many siblings,” he said.
Last summer, two children from the public ― a 3rd and a 5th grader ― even visited to experience life in a large family, he said.
Their home in Gumi is a modest size, although it was expanded and renovated two years ago, and includes a bathroom with two basins and “prince” and “princess” rooms for the boys and girls respectively, explained Um.
“In the wintertime, to save on the heating cost, all of us sleep in the big living room,” she added.
Unlike many other Korean schoolchildren, Kim and Um’s children do not attend hagwon, but they are taught Chinese characters and English after school. They also take piano lessons, as the family believes that the ability to play an instrument is key to getting enjoyment from life.
“Music never stops in the house because of this,” their father said.
The family do not get to eat out much, but instead eat homemade Korean food ― mostly spicy dishes that make use of the rice donated from a local bank such as “bibimbap,” or mixed rice and vegetables with red pepper paste.
With their 12-seater van, they are able to travel to Um’s parents’ house for vacations, or go to free music festivals and plays.
Despite having very different personalities ― for example Kim Sodami, 7, is a tomboy, Kim Dadeurim, 18, is thoughtful and full of laughter and Kim Dasom, 21, is very organized ― the proud parents say all the children get on well, and do not fight often. Um explained that “hierarchy is very important in the house” and the children are taught to always apologize for any wrongdoing.
Kim highlighted the benefits he sees in being raised in a large family: “They say that they are never bored. They are proud that they have someone by their side ... who can back them up ... and they are glad that they have someone to ask, as a mentor, for things that they have trouble or difficulties with.”
Admitting he is a little conservative in his wishes for his children’s future, he hopes his daughters marry young and begin their own happy families. For his sons, he hopes they are employed in something they enjoy.
But the greatest reward, he said, is watching them help each other and making each other happy.
“You need to prioritize things in life,” said Kim, adding, “Many young couples think that they do not need a child, because of their own concerns, but that’s only because they do not know the happiness of having one.
“Children are a fruit of marriage; they bring an energy to life and a common interest for two loved ones. Children are our happiness, courage, blessing and energy until death.”
By Hannah Stuart-Leach