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[Op-Ed] Improving Conditions for Childbirth

Posted June. 11, 2009 08:28,   


A government task force for making a “better place for procreation” to promote childbirth was launched yesterday. President Lee Myung-bak and First Lady Kim Yoon-ok showed their interest by participating in the launching ceremony. Childbirth promotion measures adopted by the task force include all measures presented so far, such as more financial support for in vitro fertilization, additional child support, and more tax deductions for double-income households. Religious circles have also joined the procreation-raising drive by launching a campaign to respect life by preventing abortion and suicide.

Korea is faced with a host of challenges such as the economic crisis, North Korea’s nuclear threat, labor conflict and political regression. More than anything, however, the falling birthrate should be urgently dealt with because it will determine the country’s future. It is difficult to address overnight obstacles that prevent women from having more children. The total fertility rate, the average number of babies a woman gives birth to over her life, was six in the 1960s. The figure slid to 1.19 last year, however, giving Korea the dubious honor of having the world’s lowest birthrate for four consecutive years. Though a fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to maintain a population, the total fertility rate keeps falling since it recorded 2.1 in 1983. If drastic action is not taken, Korea’s population is expected to start falling from 2018.

Contrary to the “population bomb,” or a disaster resulting from overpopulation, the consequences of a low birthrate and aging society are called a “population earthquake.” Labor shortages and higher working age will lead to a lack of quality labor, resulting in falling industrial competitiveness. This will in turn undermine domestic consumption, plunging the country into a low growth trap. When there are people, money and jobs follow. According to the Korea Development Institute, if the total fertility rate remains 1.2, the country’s potential growth will plummet to 2.91 percent in 2020 from 4.56 percent in the 2000s.

The response of Korean women to the pro-birth campaign is far from enthusiastic, however. Financial support for childbirth from provincial governments is not enough to persuade women to have children. The number of women in the major childbearing age range of 20-29 has dropped 700,000 over the past decade. For them, marriage is not a necessity. What they want is employment. Many women say they will consider having babies after getting jobs. As shown in advanced countries, more employment for women leads to increasing fertility rates. The government should thus place top priority on increasing female employment.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)