In January 2011, then Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon took a political gamble by proposing a referendum for universal free school lunch, a policy he opposed. Mayor Oh strongly opposed the welfare policies put forth by the Democratic Party, the opposition at that time, accusing them of unscrupulously garnering votes through free medical and education services. He warned that their extensive free services agenda could destabilize society.
The writer served as the in-charge journalist for the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Amidst the nationwide prominence of the free lunch issue, I had been told numerous times by city officials about the importance of selectively adopting welfare systems. Mr. Oh resigned when the referendum turnout reached 25.7%, below the required 33.3% for vote counting. The Democratic Party held the mayor post until Mr. Oh's return after ten years through the 2021 by-election.
Despite regretting the risk to his mayoral office, Mayor Oh has consistently maintained his stance on selective welfare, a sentiment he shared in our private conversations. However, a recent encounter with a female office worker in her 40s revealed an unexpected story. She expressed deep gratitude for the city government's provision of subsidies for medical procedures addressing infertility among couples, contrasting it with that of the Health and Welfare Ministry with stringent income requirements, which rendered the support practically inaccessible for double-income families.
This illustrates Mayor Oh's commitment to tackling the low fertility problem, which is evident in his acceptance of universal welfare measures. The Seoul Metropolitan Government eliminated income requirements for infertility procedures and initiated a one-million-Korean-won (KRW) postnatal care benefit for all mothers giving birth starting March 2023. These measures collectively aim to address the challenge of low fertility, a critical factor that could shape the nation's future.
Infertility procedures, requiring three to four monthly clinic visits, come at a staggering cost, ranging from a substantial 4 to 5 million won. A Korean office worker in the 30s criticized the government's income criteria for these procedures—claimed to be intended to boost the birth rate—as absurd. They described it as a reflection of a tone-deaf approach by civil servants disconnected from the realities of everyday life.
From January 2024, all families undergoing infertility procedures can receive support, irrespective of their income levels. Many provincial governments are extending previously restricted support, originally confined to families with lower or below specific monthly incomes or those receiving basic livelihood subsidies, to be universal.
The remaining challenge is to ensure the sustainability of these welfare services. The infertility procedure subsidizing project shifted to provincial governments from the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2022. While affluent cities including Seoul City may afford assistance to infertile couples, some provinces may face budgetary challenges, potentially rendering the welfare project obsolete if the Ministry ignores its financial struggles.
In August 2023, Korea's Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission advised re-centralizing funding and management of the infertility procedure subsidizing project under the national ministry. Mayor Oh, who risked his political career for his belief in a selective welfare system 11 years ago, has adjusted his stance on the low fertility issue. If the current national government is truly committed to addressing the low birth rate, it should strongly reconsider directly overseeing the welfare program for supporting infertile couples.