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Korea feared to disappear

Posted December. 04, 2017 08:42,   

Updated December. 04, 2017 08:54


The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has estimated Korea’s total fertility rate for this year at 1.26 in its 2017 “World Factbook,” placing the country at 219th of the 224 countries analyzed. Korea’s ranking is the rock bottom among the 35 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The total fertility rate is the number of babies a woman is expected to give birth during her lifetime. Countries that have posted a total fertility rate lower than that of Korea are Singapore, Macro, Taiwan and Puerto Rico, which are small countries with a population of 10 million or less, except Taiwan with 23 million. Korea has effectively ranked last among the countries that can be considered ordinary states.

Korea has been able to manage economic growth despite a falling fertility due to a high population bonus namely a higher ratio of working age population relative to its total population. However, the era of population bonus has ended and an era of population cliff has started this year. With a falling ratio of newborns, which continued at a double digit level from December last year to September this year, the total number of newborns in the country is set to fall below the 400,000 mark for the first time this year. Since falling below 500,000 in 2002 (492,000), the number of newborns is now plunging to below the 400,000 mark in 15 years.

The situation is all the more serious in provincial areas where childrearing infrastructure is weaker. Last year, 52 counties had 300 or less newborns among the 81 counties nationwide. Namhae County in South Gyeongsang Province had 140 newborns and 722 deceased residents last year. A low fertility rate is threatening the very existence of a local government. In 2006, Oxford University professor David Coleman singled out Korea as the first country that was projected to disappear from the earth. If the current trend persists, it is only a matter of time before the country will actually disappear, just as the professor predicted.

Warnings against a low birthrate have been a major concern for Korea for many years. Back in 2001, Korea was already classified into a country of ultralow fertility rate whose total fertility rate is 1.3 or less. The government has spent as much as 124 trillion won (114 billion U.S. dollars) in total since 2006 in line with its basic plan to resolve a low fertility rate and aging society. The fact that the situation has deteriorated further despite such expenditure means that a myriad of policy measures put in place by different ministries and local governments to address the low fertility rate have had very limited effect. A young couple’s decision on childbirth and childrearing is influenced by comprehensive factors, such as jobs, housing, environment promoting work-life balance, establishment of social recognition for sharing of childrearing burden between man and woman, easing of highly competitive education environment and expectations for public safety.

To resolve this issue, the government should set a plan from a long-term perspective, and consistently and constantly implement it, and thereby build up public trust. Not a single couple will give birth to a child just because they are entitled to several hundred dollars in cash payout such as childbirth subsidies. How many couples would choose to have a baby for the child subsidy of 100,000 won (92 dollars) per month, which the government pledged to provide to families with a child aged five or under from July next year? The government should consider a hike in the fertility rate its top policy priority, integrate measures for resolving the low birthrate that are scattered across different ministries and provincial governments, and instead introduce practical policy measures. Korea is feared to completely disappear due to its plunging population even before North Korea’s missile attack.