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[Editorial] Red alert

Total births and fertility rate fall to record low; new measures unveiled

By Korea Herald

Published : Sept. 1, 2023 - 05:30

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Setting a fresh record is usually a positive development. But it’s disheartening when it comes to South Korea’s dismal birth rate, which is breaking one record after another -- in a downward direction.

According to population data released by Statistics Korea on Wednesday, only 249,000 babies were born in 2022, down 11,000 from a year earlier. It is the first time the figure fell below 250,000 since the agency began compiling data in 1970.

The latest figure comes as a big challenge for policymakers, as the trend seems almost unstoppable, and poses a grave threat to the country’s future. The number of newborn babies was over 1 million in 1970, but rapidly fell to 400,000 in 2002, and then dropped below 300,000 in 2020.

In the second quarter of this year, the country saw just 56,087 new babies, down 6.8 percent from a year earlier. In June, only 18,615 babies were born, marking the ninth consecutive month the number of babies has fallen on-year.

The fertility rate, which shows how many children the average woman will have over her lifetime, also set an ominous record of 0.78 in 2022 -- down 0.03 from a year earlier. In the second quarter of this year, the fertility rate went down further to stand at 0.70, down 0.05 compared to the same period last year.

Korea’s fertility rate is not only far below the replacement rate of about 2.1 needed to sustain a population, but also the world’s lowest level. It should also be noted that Korea was the only country with a fertility rate below 1 among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2021.

Another worrying sign is the continued increase in the age of parents. The Statistics Korea data showed that the average age of women giving birth reached a record high of 33.5 in 2022, up 0.2 from the previous year. The average age of fathers was also a record 36. This means a growing number of Korean couples are getting married and having babies at an older age.

Experts say more drastic measures are needed to tackle the birthrate and population crisis. Due to the continued fall in birth rate, the country’s population shrank by a net 27,272 during the April-June period this year. If the much-dreaded trend continues, the country’s key welfare and economic policies are bound to suffer due to the shortage of young people in the workforce amid the rapid aging of the existing population.

On Tuesday, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration unveiled new measures in its 2024 budget plan to tackle the low birth rate. The policies include a special allocation of some 70,000 houses for families with newborns, and the extension of maternity leave from the current one year to 1 1/2 years.

The new policy on affordable housing is to address one of the biggest challenges newlywed couples face before they settle down and have children, along with other issues such as child care burdens and career interruptions for women.

Some experts claim the government must change its fundamental policies in consideration of shifting views on marriage and child care. In a new survey by Statistics Korea, the ratio of people aged 19 to 35 who favorably view the need for marriage was just 36.4 percent in 2022, down 20 percentage points from 10 years ago. And 53.5 percent of respondents said they see no reason to have babies even if they get married. Also noticeable is that 80.9 percent of respondents said they hold a positive view on cohabitation and having babies outside of marriage.

The government has poured money into running various programs for new mothers, but failed to stop the fertility rate from sliding year after year. It is time for the government to expand the scope of support programs, considering new types of family and nonmarital fertility as European nations did. There is no time to waste in the face of a falling marriage rate, birth rate and population.