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Korea nears population extinction despite warnings in 1988

Korea nears population extinction despite warnings in 1988

Posted March. 04, 2024 08:09,   

Updated March. 04, 2024 08:09


‘Our nation's population is expected to undergo a rapid decline over the next 30 years.’

This is the first sentence of an article published in the society section of The Dong-A Ilbo on Nov. 12, 1988. Accompanied by a subheading stating, 'Last year's total fertility rate recorded 1.7,’ the article concludes with a quote from Lee Si-baek, then a professor at Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Health: “I think it's because of the success of family planning programs. Moving forward, population policy and all relevant policy plans will have to be drastically revised.” This was during the 1980s, a time when the slogan 'even one child floods the Korean peninsula' was prevalent.

The prediction has become a reality after 32 years. From 2020, when more people died than were born for the first time, to last year, there was a natural decline of 336,300 people. The population of Hanam City, Gyeonggi Province, and Gwangjin-gu, Seoul, has disappeared in just four years. The total fertility rate fell to less than half of 1.7, reaching 0.72 last year and 0.65 in the fourth quarter alone. Considering that the fertility rate needed to maintain the current population is 2.1, the prediction that we will become the "first country to face extinction in the world" is likely to materialize.

Since the success of family planning in 1980, which saw the fertility rate plummet from 2.82 to 1 mark, we knew the problems that a declining fertility rate would bring, as developed countries were already experiencing population decline, a growing elderly population, and labor shortages due to low fertility rates. According to a December 7, 1981 editorial, “It may seem desirable to stop population growth by further reducing the fertility rate since we feel the side effects of overpopulation in our daily lives, but the example of the developed countries teaches us that population problems bring a new series of issues not only in terms of food and unemployment.”

The failure to respond to the declining birthrate, which was as evident as an 'open book test,' is also apparent in the issue of work-family balance. In a 1981 interview, the late Dr. Lee Tai-young, Korea's first female lawyer, stated, “Of Korea's 18.64 million female population, 5.25 million are employed, constituting 28% of the total. While the number of working women is increasing, many areas still lack the experience and wisdom needed to address issues such as balancing work and family.” The problem of women being forced to choose between work and family is one of the main reasons for the declining birthrate, as the proportion of employed women has nearly doubled.

The idea of a 'demographic cliff' and a 'single tax' on unmarried households is not uncommon in the online community. On Sept. 19, 1977, a short article titled 'Fines for Childlessness' appeared in the foreign topics section, featuring a British professor's prediction that the U.K., facing a declining birth rate, would have to fine childless couples by the year 2000. What once seemed like a foreign topic has now become commonplace in Korea.

As I reflect on the articles that have appeared in newspapers, I come to the stark realization that the frightening prediction made 30 years ago has come true: 'In the next 30 years or so, we will be the first country in the world to disappear because of population decline, not war or disaster.' I hope this sentence is never quoted as having become a reality.