Jammed into this small Indiana-size nation are roughly 52 million people (estimated 2020), which is about one sixth of the population of the entire United States. The population density of Korea is one of the highest in the world (about 527 per square kilometer, 1,366 per square mile, 17 times higher that of the United States), and what makes this statistic even more remarkable is that most of Korea is covered by mountains.

More than 81 percent of all Koreans live in urban areas (compared to 83 percent in Great Britain and 21 percent in Ethiopia); and the population is only growing at the rate of 0.4 percent a year (compared to -.2 percent in Britain and 3.0 percent in Kenya). The average life expectancy is 82.6 and about 13 percent of all Koreans are under 15, and 16 percent are over 65.

Koreans are for all intents and purposes the only ethnic group found in Korea, which is surprising when you consider that Korea has been occupied off and on by Japan and China throughout its history (most recently by the Japanese between 1910 and 1945). In contrast, China has over 86 different ethnic groups and even homogeneous Japan has a minority, the Ainu, in Hokkaido. There is no sizable ethnic minority in South Korea. About 25,000 Chinese are residents there. There are large numbers of Americans, most of them soldiers or English teachers, and many foreign workers, primarily from China and Southeast Asia.

Population of South Korea

Population of South Korea: 51,835,110 (July 2020 estimated). South Korea is the 27th most populated country in the world. The population of South Korea is about twice the population of North Korea. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

There are about 77.5 million people living on the Korean peninsula. About 52 million in South Korea and almost 25.5 million in North Korea. Out of the total population of South Korea, roughly 20 percent live in Seoul. Other large cities include Busan (Pusan), Incheon, Daegu (Taegu), Daejeon (Taejon), Gwangju and Ulsan. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Korea is one of the world's most densely populated countries. Population density: 527 people square kilometer, 1366 people per square mile (compared to 2 per square kilometer in Mongolia, 35 per square kilometer in the United States and 5 per square mile in Mongolia, 93 per square mile in the United States, and 2,890 per square mile in Bangladesh) Other densely populated countries include Singapore, Belgium, and the Netherlands. [Source: World Population Review]

Population distribution: with approximately 70 percent of the country considered mountainous, the country's population is primarily concentrated in the lowland areas, where density is quite high; Gyeonggi Province in the northwest, which surrounds the capital of Seoul and contains the port of Incheon, is the most densely populated province; Gangwon in the northeast is the least populated. The populations of North Gyeongsang Province, Gangwon Province, North Jeolla Province, and South Jeolla Province are declining.

Demography of South Korea

South Korea’s age structure has changed significantly since the 1950s, driven largely by falling birthrates and rising life expectancies, resulting in an increasing ratio of the elderly. By 2030 it is expected that more than 20 percent of the population will be 65 or older. In the population, men slightly outnumber women, with 101 males for every 100 females. The social preference for male children, although less pronounced than in the past, remains. The widening disparity between the birthrates of males and females has occasioned expressions of concern from the South Korean government. The fertility rate in 2004 was 1.6 children born for every woman, the birthrate was 12.3 births per 1,000, the death rate was 6.1 deaths per 1,000, and the infant mortality rate was 7.2 deaths per 1,000. The figures are lower now. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

Age structure (distribution of the population according to age, 2020):
0-14 years: 12.77 percent (male 3,401,815/female 3,219,589)
15-24 years: 11.18 percent (male 3,030,027/female 2,764,860)
25-54 years: 44.66 percent (male 12,043,626/female 11,106,927)
55-64 years: 15.47 percent (male 3,927,496/female 4,089,033)
65 years and over: 15.92 percent (male 3,572,855/female 4,678,882) (2020 estimated)
In 2005, approximately 9 percent of the population was over 65 years of age, with 19 percent under 15.
[Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress]

Dependency ratios (a measure of the age structure of a population):
total dependency ratio: 39.5
youth (ages 0-14) dependency ratio: 17.5
elderly (ages 65+) dependency ratio: 22
potential support ratio: 4.5 (2020 estimated)
The figures relate the number of individuals that are likely to be economically "dependent" on the support of others. Dependency ratios contrast the ratio of youths and the elderly to the number of those in the working-age group (ages 15-64). Changes in the dependency ratio provide an indication of potential social support requirements resulting from changes in population age structures.
[Source: CIA World Factbook]

Median age: male: 41.6 years; female: 45 years (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 29

Population Trends: 1948-1990

The population of South Korea grew rapidly after the birth of the republic in 1948. Accelerating between 1955 and 1966, it reached 29.2 million, with an annual average growth rate of 2.8 percent; but the growth rate declined significantly during the period of 1966 to 1985, falling to an annual average of 1.7 percent. Thereafter, the annual average growth rate was less than 1 percent. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

The population of South Korea has grown rapidly since the republic's establishment in 1948. In the first official census, taken in 1949, the total population of South Korea was calculated at 20,188,641 people. The 1985 census total was 40,466,577. Population growth was slow, averaging about 1.1 percent annually during the period from 1949 to 1955, when the population registered at 21.5 million. Growth accelerated between 1955 and 1966 to 29.2 million or an annual average of 2.8 percent, but declined significantly during the period 1966 to 1985 to an annual average of 1.7 percent. Thereafter, the annual average growth rate was estimated to be less than 1 percent, similar to the low growth rates of most industrialized countries and to the target figure set by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs for the 1990s. As of January 1, 1989, the population of South Korea was estimated to be approximately 42.2 million. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The proportion of the total population under fifteen years of age has risen and fallen with the growth rate. In 1955 approximately 41.2 percent of the population was under fifteen years of age, a percentage that rose to 43.5 percent in 1966 before falling to 38.3 percent in 1975, 34.2 percent in 1980, and 29.9 percent in 1985. In the past, the large proportion of children relative to the total population put great strains on the country's economy, particularly because substantial resources were invested in education facilities. With the slowdown in the population growth rate and a rise in the median age (from 18.7 years to 21.8 years between 1960 and 1980), the age structure of the population has begun to resemble the columnar pattern typical of developed countries, rather than the pyramidal pattern found in most parts of the Third World. *

The decline in the population growth rate and in the proportion of people under fifteen years of age after 1966 reflected the success of official and unofficial birth control programs. The government of President Syngman Rhee (1948-60) was conservative in such matters. Although Christian churches initiated a family planning campaign in 1957, it was not until 1962 that the government of Park Chung Hee, alarmed at the way in which the rapidly increasing population was undermining economic growth, began a nationwide family planning program. Other factors that contributed to a slowdown in population growth included urbanization, later marriage ages for both men and women, higher education levels, a greater number of women in the labor force, and better health standards. *

Population Settlement Patterns

South Korea was one of the world's most densely populated countries, with an estimated 425 people per square kilometer in 1989 — over sixteen times the average population density of the United States in the late 1980s. By comparison, China had an estimated 114 people, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) 246 people, and Japan 323 people per square kilometer in the late 1980s. Because about 70 percent of South Korea's land area is mountainous and the population is concentrated in the lowland areas, actual population densities were in general greater than the average. As early as 1975, it was estimated that the density of South Korea's thirty-five cities, each of which had a population of 50,000 or more inhabitants, was 3,700 people per square kilometer. Because of continued migration to urban areas, the figure was doubtless higher in the late 1980s. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

In 1988 Seoul had a population density of 17,030 people per square kilometer as compared with 13,816 people per square kilometer in 1980. The second largest city, Pusan, had a density of 8,504 people per square kilometer in 1988 as compared with 7,272 people in 1980. Kyonggi Province, which surrounds the capital and contains Inch'on, the country's fourth largest city, was the most densely populated province; Kangwon Province in the northeast was the least densely populated province.

The extreme crowding in South Korea in 1990 was a major factor not only in economic development and in the standard of living but also in the development of social attitudes and human relationships. More than most other peoples, South Koreans have had to learn to live peacefully with each other in small, crowded spaces, in which the competition for limited resources, including space itself, is intense. Continued population growth means that the shortage of space for living and working will grow more severe. According to the government's Economic Planning Board, the population density will be 530 people per square kilometer by 2023, the year the population is expected to stabilize.

Migration of Koreans

In the twentieth century, there has been significant emigration of Koreans to China (1.9 million) and the United States (1.5 million), and about 1 million Koreans live in Japan and the countries of the former Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “During the Japanese occupation (1910–45), some three million Koreans emigrated to Manchuria and other parts of China, 700,000 to Siberia, approximately three million to Japan, and about 7,000 to the United States (mostly to Hawaii). The great majority of those who went to Japan were from the populous southern provinces, and large numbers (1.5–2 million) of them returned home following the end of hostilities in 1945. In addition, from 1945 through 1949, at least 1.2 million Koreans crossed the 38th parallel into the Republic of Korea (ROK), refugees from Communism or from the Korean War. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Under the Emigration Law of 1962, the ROK government encouraged emigration to South America (especially Brazil), Germany, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Most of the emigrants are workers who remit earnings back home. A total of 409,922 Koreans emigrated during the 1962–80 period; emigration peaked at 48,270 in 1976 but had declined to 27,163 by 1990. In addition, Koreans have emigrated permanently to the United States in large numbers since 1971; the population in the United States of Korean origin was 798,849 as of 1990 (72.7 percent foreign born). Migration within South Korea, mainly from the rural areas to the cities, remains substantial despite government efforts to improve village living conditions. Remittances in 2002 were US$25.8 million.

Choong Soon Kim wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: “Rural settlement patterns have been altered significantly by a massive migration from rural to urban to industrialized areas beginning in the mid-1960s. In this period, at least 9 million farmers and their families, nearly a quarter of the total population, are estimated to have left their farms and moved to cities. In 1988, the urban population reached over 78 percent. In mid-1989, the population of Seoul, the capital, was more than 10.5 million, nearly one-fourth of the entire South Korean population, with a population density of 17,365 persons per square kilometer. Construction of large numbers of high-rise apartment complexes in Seoul and other cities has alleviated housing shortages to some extent and has determined the major settlement pattern of urban Korea. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

Immigrants and Foreign Workers in South Korea

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “”Countries and Their Cultures””: “The only immigrant ethnic minority group is a Chinese community of about 20,000 that is concentrated mainly in Seoul and has existed since the late nineteenth century. Since the Korean War, the continued presence of the United States Forces–Korea has resulted in the immigration of over one hundred thousand Korean women to the United States as soldiers' wives. Since the early 1990s, an increasing number of foreign workers from Asian countries (including Korean Chinese) and Russia have entered South Korea in pursuit of the "Korean Dreams." [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

There are currently about 1 million foreign workers in South Korea. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “In 1993, South Korea developed two programs allowing employers to hire migrant workers: the industrial trainee system and the work permit program. The training program was undercut by the fact that as unauthorized workers, trainees could earn a higher wage, even with expenses. According to Migration News, in 2004, industrial trainees numbering 50,357 ran away from their assigned employers. In November 2004, a total of 186,000 of the 422,000 foreigners in Korea were illegal. Employers realize fines of up to 20 million won (US$19,080) and up to three years in prison for hiring illegal foreigners. Since August 2004, foreigners can enter Korea as workers under the Employment Permit System. This system benefits the employers as the workers are not quitting their jobs. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“As of March 1997, 1,400 boat people who had been granted temporary refugee status were resettled to third countries. In 2004, South Korea hosted 44 refugees and 247 asylum seekers. In 2005, the net migration rate was estimated as zero per 1,000 population.

Population Growth and Fertility in South Korea

Population growth rate: 0.39 percent (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 162; 1.5 percent in Germany and 7.2 percent in Niger. This figure represents the average annual percent change in the population, resulting from a surplus (or deficit) of births over deaths and the balance of migrants entering and leaving a country. The official growth rate was around 0.6 percent in the mid 2000s, and this rate is expected to decline to zero by 2028. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020, Library of Congress]

South Korea’s birth rate and fertility rate are among the lowest in the world. Total fertility rate: 1.29 children born/woman (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 223.This figure indicates the average number of children that would be born per woman if all women lived to the end of their childbearing years and bore children according to a given fertility rate at each age. The total fertility rate (TFR) is a more direct measure of the level of fertility than the crude birth rate, since it refers to births per woman. Mother's mean age at first birth: 31 years (2014 estimated)

Birth rate: 8.2 births per 1,000 people, compared with other countries in the world: 220. Death rate: 6.8 deaths per 1,000 people. population (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 135. The birth rate is usually the dominant factor in determining the rate of population growth. It depends on both the level of fertility and the age structure of the population.

Net migration rate: 2.3 migrants per 1,000 people (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 45. This figure represents the difference between the number of persons entering and leaving a country during the year. An excess of persons entering the country is referred to as net immigration, an excess of persons leaving the country as net emigration as is indicated by a negative number.

South Korea grew very quickly after the Korean War. Then population growth began slowly declining after the 1960s and is very low today. The birth rate fell from 1.74 children per women in 1991 to 1.47 in 2000 to 1.17 in 2002. This is even lower than Japan’s 1.32 in 2002. In South Korea, as is true in many places, people are getting married later and having fewer children. Most Korean parents have only one or two children, occasionally three. Consequently the total number of children has dropped over the years.In 1995, only 3.95 million children entered school, compared to 5.3 million in 1981.

According to the International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family: the fertility rate “drop is explained by a massive family-planning program by the government that began in 1962, more women pursuing higher education, and more women working outside the home. In 2000, the college and university enrollment was 60.7 percent of women and 99.1 percent of men of college age (Ministry of Education 2000). Because of all these factors, the total fertility rate (the number of children a woman has if her childbearing rate follows national averages) has decreased to 1.4 in 1999 from 2.7 in 1980 and 6.0 in 1960. [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

South Korea: Home of the World's Lowest Birth Rate

According to a United Nations report released in June 2020, South Korea has the world’s lowest birth rate, a distinction at least partly attributed to the struggle by South Korean women to achieve a balance between work and other life demands. The annual report by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) found the fertility rate per woman in South Korea was only 1.1, the lowest among 201 countries surveyed. “Even as women have gained equality in access to education and work, decisions on having more children are constrained by their ‘second shift’ in taking care of children and managing households,” said Won Do-yeon, chief of the UNFPA’s Seoul office. Reversing the decline in fertility will require wider institutional reform consisting of policies to empower women, as well as the greater involvement and support of men, Won said. [Source: Hyonhee Shin, Reuters, June 30, 2020]

South Korea's total fertility rate hit a record low of 0.92 in 2019, government data. Yonhap reported: “The 2019 figure is far below the replacement level of 2.1 that would keep South Korea's population stable at 51 million. It also represents a sharp drop from the 4.53 in 1970, when the government began to compile relevant data, according to Statistics Korea. Last year marked the second consecutive year for the rate to fall below 1. South Korea was the only member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that had a total fertility rate below 1. In comparison, the average fertility rate among OECD nations stood at 1.63. [Source: Yonhap, August 26 2020]

“South Korea's crude birthrate — the number of births per 1,000 people per year — also came to an all-time low of 5.9 in 2019, down from the previous year's 6.4 "Total fertility rate of less than 1 is extremely low and it means the population could decline at a very fast pace," a Statistics Korea official said. The number of newborns in South Korea came to 302,700 in 2019, down 7.4 percent, or 24,100, from 2018, according to Statistics Korea. Last year's figure also marked the lowest number of newborns since record keeping began.

South Korea’s fertility rate reached a peak of six babies per woman in 1960 and then plunged. Some doomsayers predict that South Korea will become “extinct” in several centuries if it maintains its current birthrate. "It is a quasi-emergency situation," Jeon Jae-Hee, Minister of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper. "If the low birthrate continues, the nation will no longer be able to exist, with all four state insurance systems set to malfunction." The homogeneous society may have to rely on foreign immigrant labor to stay afloat, Jeon warned. Economic downturns are making it even harder to reverse the trend. "Because of economic difficulties, couples delay marriage and consequently birthrates are falling," said Jeon Baek-Geun, director of the National Statistical Office. [Source: Jun Kwanwoo, AFP April 18, 2009; Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, December 30, 2016]

Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “South Korea began aggressively promoting family planning in the 1960's, fearing that overpopulation would impede its economic growth. Slogans at the time warned South Koreans, who averaged six children per family, that they would become "beggars without family planning." Even in the 1980's, slogans declared that "even two are a lot." Successful family planning, coupled with changing mores, led the birthrate to drop below the ideal population replacement level of 2.1 in the 1980's and then more precipitously in the mid-1990's.” Park Ha Jeong, a director general in the Health Ministry said the government committed itself to raising the birthrate only last year. "We should have started these policies in the late 1990's, but we had been focused on decreasing the birthrate for 40 years and it was hard to change directions," he said. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times August 21, 2005]

Reasons for South Korea’s Low Birth Rate

The decline in childbirths, Yonhap reported, “is blamed on a sharp fall in the number of marriages and a growing number of unmarried women in recent years. The number of couples tying the knot in South Korea reached 239,200 in 2019, down 7.2 percent from the previous year. The drop came as many young South Koreans are delaying marriage or giving up on marriage altogether amid difficulties finding decent jobs or buying homes. [Source: Yonhap, August 26 2020]

“Some young South Koreans are opting to distance themselves from life's three major milestones — dating, marriage and having children — because they cannot find decent jobs amid a prolonged economic slowdown. Other factors are the high cost of private education for kids and skyrocketing real estate prices, as well as the difficulties women face in finding jobs after spending extended time away from work to raise children.”

Lee Ji-yeon, head of the population trends section at Statistics Korea, told Hankyoreh. “The fact that 47 percent of people in their early 30s, the ideal period for marriage, are unmarried, and that there are fewer people in this cohort, representing the children of the baby boomers, than among those born between 1979 and 1982, known as the ‘baby boom echo generation,’ has contributed to the decrease in the birth rate.”As South Koreans wait longer to get married and have children, the percentage of older mothers (those who are at least 35 years old) has more than doubled over the past 10 years to one in four. Such mothers accounts for 26.3 percent of the total, up 2.4 percentage points from the previous year. The average age of childbirth also increased by 0.2 years over the past year to 32.4 years. [Source: Kim So-youn, Hankyoreh, February 23,2017]

Korean Don’t Have Children Because of High Costs

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: Amid rising costs of living and education, women are increasingly moving into the job market, but they often find it all but impossible to keep their careers and raise children. Many women still feel pressure to quit their jobs once they become pregnant. For many women working in the private sector, especially those employed at smaller businesses, an extended parental leave with the option of returning to work remains a dream (by law, one can take up to a year off). Even if a woman returns to work, finding affordable day care centers can be difficult, although the government is racing to add more of them. At home, looking after a child is still largely considered a woman’s job even when she works outside the home. So with such pressures at work and at home, many women choose to remain single or marry late and have only one child, or none. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, December 30, 2016]

Jun Kwanwoo of AFP wrote: The high cost of child-rearing is also a deterrent. Education-obsessed South Koreans traditionally spend small fortunes on private schools or private tuition to give their offspring an edge in a competitive society. Children sometimes file wearily out of cram schools after midnight and parents often endure family separation so their children can study overseas. Household spending on education reached an all-time high of 39.8 trillion won (US$29.5 billion) last year, up 7.7 percent from a year earlier despite the economic downturn. This is a country where it’s really uncomfortable to marry and raise children given the shocking cost of education, one woman said. “My friends all say that if you cannot afford to give your kids a really good education, just don’t get pregnant. Otherwise pregnancy would be a sin.” [Source: Jun Kwanwoo, AFP, April 18, 2009]

Han Sang-ho, 29, a graduate student, said he did not feel confident about finding a job. "I used to have a girlfriend, but I had to break up with her because her family didn't think my future was bright," told the Joongang Daily. "Even though there are several reasons why young people are not getting married, the main reason is financial insecurity," said Kim Du-seop, a professor at Hanyang University. "The best policy to increase the birth rate is to give them jobs and financial security." [Source: Kim Si-re, Choi Sun-young,Joongang Daily, September 15, 2004]

Efforts to Increase South Korea's Sagging Birth Rate

Over the years, local officials in South Korea have tried a variety of things to encourage women to have more babies. They have increased the number of nursery schools, provided more financial support such as tax breaks and subsidized baby-sitting and offered generous maternity-leave policies, cash allowances and even boxes of beef and baby clothes and cash payments to families with newborns. Some municipalities have started matchmaking services and set up blind dates to boost baby numbers. [Source: Jun Kwanwoo, AFP April 18, 2009; Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, December 30, 2016]

In August 2016 South Korea's government announced that couples seeking fertility treatment would state financial support regardless of their income level. The BBC reported: “The help is currently limited to lower-income couples, but the change means everyone will now be eligible for at least 1 million won (US$900) per session, with the lowest earners receiving 2.4 million won. [Source: BBC, August 26, 2016]

“Health Minister Chung Chin-youb says "all possible efforts" must be made to reverse the decline. “Other measures announced include a guarantee of three days unpaid leave for those receiving fertility treatment, and increased paternity leave payments for fathers welcoming a second child. Households with three or more children will also be given priority admission to public childcare facilities. Critics of the government's approach say the problem isn't money but rather South Korea's corporate culture, where employees are often expected to work long hours and don't feel they can take time off for childcare. “

In December 2016, the South Korean government launched an online “birth map” that used shades of pink to rank towns and cities by the number of women of childbearing age. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “But the reaction was so overwhelmingly negative, especially among women, that the website was shut down within hours of its introduction. “They counted fertile women like they counted the number of livestock,” an angry blogger wrote in an online commentary with the headline “Are Women Livestock?” “Did they think that men would flock to a town with more childbearing-age women?” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, December 30, 2016]

“The Ministry of the Interior’s birth map derived from efforts to reverse the downward trend. The map showed regions with a higher number of women of childbearing age colored in dark pink. The color lightened for regions with a smaller number of such women. The map also ranked the regions by birthrate, and provided information on benefits local governments offered to families with babies. According to the map, Haenam, a county in the southwest of South Korea, ranked No. 1 with 2.46 babies per woman. Jongro, a ward in central Seoul, ranked at the bottom with a rate of 0.81.

“When the birth map was introduced, the ministry said it was intended to “promote competition” among towns to produce more babies. The idea didn’t click with many. “It’s truly deplorable because the map shows that the government considers women as nothing but baby-producing machines,” said Han Chang-min, a spokesman for the opposition Justice Party.“It shows the government sees birthrates just as a woman’s problem.”

“Many said the map only proved the government’s failure to understand what caused the low birthrate. One Twitter user, who believed that the map reflected misogyny in a government in which most of the top posts are filled by men, went so far as to create a mock rival map that ranked towns by the number of “men with sexual dysfunction.” The government’s website remained offline, showing a notice that it was under repair to reflect “corrections.”

Reverse Vasectomies and Untied Tubes in South Korea

Reporting from Wando, Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: After Park Pil Soo's second child was born nine years ago, he followed national family planning entreaties to limit families to two children by undergoing a free, government-sponsored vasectomy. Then, in April, Mr. Park took advantage of a new policy, and had the vasectomy reversed, also at the state's expense. He and his wife, Yang Eun Hwa, 36, are now trying to have a third child. After decades of promoting smaller families, South Korea — like several other Asian countries facing plummeting birthrates — is desperately seeking ways to get people to have more babies. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times August 21, 2005]

In South Korea, the decline has been so precipitous that it caught the government off guard. Policies devised to discourage more than two children, like vasectomies and tubal ligations, were covered under the national health plan until last year. This year, the plan began covering reverse procedures for those two operations, as well as care for a couple's third or fourth child. "I'd been thinking about getting the operation for a while, but was concerned about the cost," said Mr. Park, 37, who runs the Samsung Electronics store in this seaside town on the southern shore of the Korean Peninsula.

“Wando's was the first local government to supplement the national health insurance to make reverse vasectomies and tubal ligations entirely free. So far, five men and two women have had the surgeries, said Hwang Dae Rae, the county official who came up with the idea and regularly calls the couples to inquire about possible "good news." (None has been reported so far.) Ms. Hwang acknowledged that the new policy would not solve the low birthrate problem, which, here and in the rest of Asia, is rooted in women's rising social and economic standing. "In the past, women thought it was their obligation to have children, but not anymore," she said.

“Still, she said, the new policy is symbolic of the change in the national government's approach, whose longtime, single-minded focus on small families had put social pressure on South Koreans. Choi Hyung Soon, 40, one of the two women to undergo a reverse tubal ligation, now wants a third child. After she had had two sons in her 20's, she underwent a tubal ligation because it seemed the right thing to do. "The campaign at the time was to have only two children," she said, at a barbecue restaurant she runs here. "So one day a lot of my friends in the neighborhood decided to go have the operation, and I went along. I felt it was a foolish decision."

Declining Population Hits Rural Areas the Hardest

Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “The low birthrate has hit rural places like Wando County hardest. Within less than a decade, it has transformed South Korea's rural landscape, shuttering schools, shrinking class sizes, setting off village-wide celebrations for the rare birth of a baby. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times August 21, 2005]

Growing up here, Park Pil Soo has watched family sizes shrink to fewer than two children from as many as eight, and Wando's population decreases year by year. People have grown richer here. At his Samsung store, residents began buying air-conditioners four years ago, and they expect television sets in each room and a refrigerator just for kimchi. "People now want a higher living standard instead of children," he said, as he and his wife attended to customers.”

In April 2005, “Seocheon, a west coast county whose population has declined from 150,000 in the 1960's to 65,000, began giving out bonuses for babies: US$300 for the first or second child, US$800 for the third. "Some villages haven't heard babies crying in 18 years," said Lee Kwon Hee, the county deputy chief.At the Masan Elementary School, the population of 56 students is less than a tenth of what it was in the 1970's. Back then, pupils were packed together so that schools had what were called "bean sprout classrooms," said Kim Deok Sang, the principal. Nowadays, Masan's students have to join those at the two nearest schools for sporting and other events. There was some good news, though, in at least one corner of Seocheon County. Last winter, the village of Seokdong celebrated its first newborn in four years — twins, in fact, born to Lee Ji Yun, 28, and her husband, Park Dae Soo, 32. Their 4-year-old daughter had been the last child born there.

The young couple own 10 cows and farm potatoes, rice, garlic and chilies. Although the county gave them a total of US$1,100 for the twins, they emphasized that the cash incentive played no role in their decision. Mr. Park said he doubted that the bonus would bolster the birthrate. His wife, a nurse who stopped working when the twins were born, nodded. "If I hadn't had twins, I would have kept working," she said, citing inadequate medical and day care. "The government should look at this society's fundamental problems," her husband said, "instead of just handing out money."

South Korean TV Writers Urged to Show More Happy Women with Babies to Help Boost Birthrate

In November 2006, the Planned Population Federation of Korea held a two-day seminar for writers of TV soaps and dramas and urged them to create more situations that show happy mothers with their children with the aim of encouraging couples to have more children. "For many years we have been pondering what influences people the most, and we concluded it was TV dramas and other news and documentary programs," said Shin Sun-chol of the family planning group. "We are just asking the writers to be more considerate because some programs now depict career women as being very egoistical, thinking only of themselves." [Source: Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times, December 10, 2006]

Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The idea of leaning on TV writers for social engineering followed the release of a government study of 50 South Korean dramas that shows a television landscape in which single life is portrayed as cool, children as a burden, and love as something that does not always have to lead to marriage and a family. And that's important in a country where the audience of potential mothers — women in their 20s and 30s — is known to be heavily influenced by TV dramas. Not only do the shows generate big audiences, but their subject matter is spun off to heavily trafficked Internet chat rooms where plot lines are discussed with great intensity.

"Koreans are very emotional, and they don't watch TV dramas as drama — they think it is something close to their own lives," said Go Bong-hwan, a female TV writer. "They tend to see the TV character's problem as their problem, to the point that some Korean husbands worry that their wife might have an extramarital affair just because her favorite character in a drama is having an affair."

“There are strong signals that South Korean women are far less likely than men to see marriage as desirable. An October poll for the Health and Welfare Ministry found that 71 percent of unmarried men considered marriage "necessary," whereas the same percentage of unmarried women preferred a good job to marriage. Earlier government surveys showed a dramatic drop since the late 1990s in the number of women with a positive attitude toward having children. More than a third of married women now say having children is not a priority, up from 9 percent in 1998.

“So the government has set out to improve the public image of marriage and family. Prime-time dramas have a track record of altering attitudes, Shin said, noting that when the government was trying to reduce South Korea's high birthrate in the 1960s, the Planned Population Federation petitioned TV writers to show households with fewer children.

The government still must persuade today's writers to get on board. Go, who is married with children, said she feels an urge to write about husbands who help out more around the home. "But that's about it," she said. "It's very easy to write about happy families, but what excites us is to write about characters who need more love. It's more challenging to write about families with problems." The 10 male and 22 female writers who heard the government's appeal were a mixed group: about half of them married with families and half of them single, with the women expressing how difficult it is to have a family and a television career. And they had some practical objections to the government's appeal to put more children on prime time. "Some of the writers said it was too much work because they'd have to give each kid a line," Shin said. "But they said they'd try."

Korea’s Rapidly Aging Population

South Korea is increasingly being made up of old people. Crystal Tai wrote in the South China Morning Post: “By 2030, nearly one-third of all South Koreans will be age 65 or older, according to a report published last year by economist Lee Jong-wha of Korea University. Because older people are less willing or able to work, a higher proportion of them will ultimately lead to a labour shortage, said Kang Sung-jin, an economist and director of Korea University’s Institute of Sustainable Development. [Source: Crystal Tai, South China Morning Post, January 20, 2019]

“A decreasing supply of labour affects the economic growth rate,” he said. “And a high number of elderly means the government will have to spend more on welfare costs, meaning that younger generations will pay more taxes.” This demographic time bomb is already familiar to so-called super-aged societies like Japan, Germany and Italy, where more than one-fifth of the population is over 65, but for many young South Koreans it seems like a distant worry compared to the more immediate problems in their lives.”

AFP reported: South Korea became an ageing society in 2000 and is expected to become a "super-aged society" by 2026, when more than 20 percent of its population will be aged over 65. This will have a significant economic impact in terms of increased welfare bills and a diminished workforce. South Korea's working-age population between 15 and 64 will peak in 2016 at 37.04 million before starting to dwindle the following year, Statistics Korea said. The most economically-active segment — those between 25 and 49 — already dropped for the first time last year to 19.78 million. [Source: AFP, November 24, 2014]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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