According to the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “The concept of the contemporary Korean family dates from the 1960s, a period of transformation that affected the economic and political spheres, as well as cultural patterns and legal affairs. From the end of World War II until the 1960s, Korea experienced great social and economic difficulties such as the Korean war. After the 1960s, Korea began to industrialize rapidly, while also becoming more urban, and since then the Korean economy has grown faster than at any other time in its history. The standard of living has improved significantly: Per capita income rose from US$87 in 1962 to US$11,380 in 1996, although it dropped to US$9,628 in 2000 after the financial crisis of 1997. Few countries have changed economically as rapidly as has Korea. During these periods, the government made industrialization its top priority. This process brought about urbanization and changes in family type to nuclear families. As a result, the average household changed dramatically, especially the relationships among family members. [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Korean households by type of family:
1955: 63.5 percent in nuclear family; 30.7 percent in extended family; 2.5 percent other family type.
1966: 64.7 percent in nuclear family; 20.6 percent in extended family; 12.4 percent other family type.
1970: 5.4 percent married couple; 55.5 percent married with children; 10.6 percent single parent with children; 1.4 percent married with parent and no children; 17.4 percent married with parent and children; 9.7 percent other family type.
1975: 5.0 percent married couple; 55.6 percent married with children; 10.5 percent single parent with children; 0.5 percent married with parent and no children; 10.9 percent married with parent and children; 17.9 percent other family type.
1980: 6.5 percent married couple; 57.4 percent married with children; 10.6 percent single parent with children; 0.6 percent married with parent and no children; 10.6 percent married with parent and children; 14.8 percent other family type.
1985: 7.8 percent married couple; 57.8 percent married with children; 9.7 percent single parent with children; 0.8 percent married with parent and no children; 9.9 percent married with parent and children; 14.0 percent other family type.
1990: 9.4 percent married couple; 58.0 percent married with children; 8.7 percent single parent with children; 0.9 percent married with parent and no children; 9.4 percent married with parent and children; 13.8 percent other family type.
1995: 12.6 percent married couple; 58.6 percent married with children; 8.6 percent single parent with children; 1.1 percent married with parent and no children; 8.0 percent married with parent and children; 11.2 percent other family type.
[Source: South Korean National Statistical Office, Annual Report on Vital Statistics (1982–1997)]

Economic relations between the generations of a single family changed radically in the transition from traditional rural to modern urban society. In the past, the male head of the patrilineal family controlled all the property, usually in the form of land, and was generally the sole provider of economic support. With the development of modern industry and services, however, each adult generation and nuclear family unit has become more or less economically independent, although sons might depend upon their parents or even their wife's parents for occasional economic assistance — for example, in purchasing a house. Because urban families usually live apart from their paternal in-laws, even when the householder is the eldest son, the wife no longer has to endure the domination of her mother-in-law and sister-in- law. In many cases, the family is closer to the wife's parents than to the husband's. The modern husband and wife often are closer emotionally than in the old family system. They spend more time together and even go out socially, a formerly unheard-of practice. Yet the expectation still remains that elderly parents will live with one of their children, preferably a son, rather than on their own or in nursing homes. This expectation could change in the last decade of the century, however, with the expansion of health care and social welfare facilities. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Family Life in Modern Urban South Korea

Contemporary urban family and social life in South Korea at the start of the 1990s exhibits a number of departures from traditional family and kinship institutions. One example is the tendency for complex kinship and family structures to weaken or break down and be replaced by structurally simpler twogeneration , nuclear families. Another closely related trend is the movement toward equality in family relations and the resulting improvement in the status of women. Thirdly, there is a movement away from lineage- and neighborhood-based social relations toward functionally based relations. People in the cities no longer work among their relatives or neighbors in the fields or on fishing boats, but among unrelated people in factories, shops and offices. Finally, there is an increasing tendency for an individual's location and personal associations to be transitory and temporary rather than permanent and lifelong, although the importance of school ties is pivotal. There is greater physical mobility as improved transportation facilities, superhighways, and rapid express trains make it possible to travel between cities in a few hours. Subsidiary transportation networks have broken down barriers between onceisolated villages and the urban areas. Mobility in human relations also is becoming more apparent as people change their residences more frequently, often because of employment, and an increasing proportion of the urban population lives in large, impersonal apartment complexes. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Matchmaking was a big business in Seoul and other cities in contemporary society; coffee shops and lounges often were crowded on weekends. In a change from traditional society, prospective brides and grooms held scores of interviews, son pogi, before deciding on the companion they would like to date-for- marriage. Many of these young men and women changed their minds after these dates and the process began again. Yonae, or "love match" marriages occurred with increasing frequency.

Contrary to the Confucian ideal, the nuclear family consisting of a husband, wife, and children is becoming predominant in contemporary South Korea. It differs from the traditional "branch family" or "little house" (chagunjip) for two reasons: the conjugal relationship between husband and wife tends to take precedence over the relationship between the son and his parents, and the nuclear family unit is becoming increasingly independent, both economically and psychologically, of larger kinship groups. These developments have led to greater equality among the family units established by the eldest and younger sons. Whereas the isolated nuclear family was perceived in the past as a sign of poverty and misfortune, the contemporary nuclear family is often viewed as being a conscious choice made by those who do not wish their privacy invaded by intrusive relatives.

Outside the nuclear family, blood relationships still are important, particularly among close relatives, such as members of the same tangnae, or mourning group. Relations with more distant relatives, such as members of the same lineage, tend to be weak, especially if the lineage has its roots in a distant rural village, as most do. Ancestor rites are practiced in urban homes, although for fewer generations than formerly: the majority of urban dwellers seem to conduct rites only in honor of the father and mother of the family head. As a result, there are many fewer ancestors to venerate and far fewer occasions to hold the household ceremonies. In some ways, however, increased geographical mobility has helped to preserve family solidarity. During New Year's, Hansik (Cold Food Day in mid-April), and Ch'usok (the Autumn Harvest Festival in mid-September), the airplanes, trains, and highways in the late 1980s were jammed with people traveling to visit both living relatives and grave sites in their ancestral communities.

Household Composition in South Korea

According to the International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family: “The industrialization of the 1960s accelerated the regional relocation of the population. The urban population has grown from 28 percent of the total population in 1960 to 74 percent in 1990 and to 81 percent in 2000 (KNSO 2000). Since 1945, the number of households has constantly increased, but the average number of people per household has decreased from 5.7 in 1960, to 4.5 in 1980, 4.16 in 1985, 3.77 in 1990, and 3.34 in 1995. During the same period, the difference in average family size between urban and rural areas disappeared because of changes in the nuclear family and the increase in the number households consisting of a single person. [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Korean households by type and average size:
1966: 7.5 percent one generation; 64.0 percent two generations; 26.9 percent three generations; 1.6 percent more than four generations; Average size of household: 5.5
1970: 6.8 percent one generation; 70.0 percent two generations; 22.1 percent three generations; 1.1 percent more than four generations; 0.0 percent single household; 0.0 percent single household with unrelated persons; Average size of household: 5.2
1975: 7.0 percent one generation; 71.9 percent two generations; 20.1 percent three generations; 1.0 percent more than four generations; 4.2 percent single household; 0.0 percent single household with unrelated persons; Average size of household: 5.0
1980: 9.0 percent one generation; 74.2 percent two generations; 17.8 percent three generations; 0.6 percent more than four generations; 4.8 percent single household; 1.5 percent single household with unrelated persons; Average size of household: 4.5
1985: 10.5 percent one generation; 73.3 percent two generations; 15.8 percent three generations; 0.5 percent more than four generations; 6.9 percent single household; 1.7 percent single household with unrelated persons; Average size of household: 4.1
1990: 12.0 percent one generation; 74.1 percent two generations; 13.6 percent three generations; 0.3 percent more than four generations; 9.0 percent single household; 1.5 percent single household with unrelated persons; Average size of household: 3.7
1995: 14.7 percent one generation; 73.7 percent two generations; 11.4 percent three generations; 0.2 percent more than four generations; 12.7 percent single household; 1.4 percent single household with unrelated persons; Average size of household: 3.3
[Source: Korean National Statistical Office, Annual Report on Vital Statistics (1982–1997).

“Since 1960, the number of nuclear families in rural areas increased more rapidly than it did in urban areas because young rural adults migrated into cities (KNSO 1970, 1980, 1995). In particular, the increase in life expectancy and decrease in filial responsibility led to more elderly people (over sixty-five) living by themselves, an increase of 16.0 percent between 1990 and 1995. The elderly represented 7.1 percent of Korea's population in 2000 (KNSO 2000).

“Families with two generations cohabiting comprised 73.7 percent of the total population in 1995. The number of households that consisted of childless married couples increased. At the same time, the percentage of stem families, three-generation families cohabiting, decreased. Thus, the traditional extended family system is changing to that of the conjugal family composed of a couple and their children. But this phenomenon does not mean that Korean nuclear family is seen as an ideological construct (Chang 1997). Because the Korean people still cherish the ideal image of the extended family, modified nuclear families are more popular in reality. Economic factors also play a role (Kweon 1998). A strong discrepancy, then, is evident between the ideal images of the extended family, commonly cherished by Korean people, and the actual reality of Korean families.

Changes in the Korean Family

According to “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “The tremendous demographic changes, as well as changes in the family makeup itself, make it very hard to grasp the characteristics of the contemporary Korean family. Korea's traditional culture, including its religious heritage, was seriously undermined during Japan's colonial rule of Korea (1910–45) and during the Korean War (1950–53). Further complicating the question, since the 1960s, within a single generation, Korea has been transformed from an agrarian to an industrialized urban society. The adoption of not only Western science and technology, but also Western culture, has played a decisive role in bringing about this transformation. Swept into the country on the tides of westernization, industrialization, and economic development, Protestantism has taken root and expanded its reach (Park and Cho 1995a; Yoon 1964). All of these societal forces have transformed the traditional value system and demographic characteristics of Korean families. [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“Significant changes have occurred in recent times to the structure and dynamics of family life in Korea, yet some of the old patterns persist. In terms of structure, Korean families are very similar to those of Western countries. But Koreans' attitudes differ greatly from those of Westerners because of the society's dualistic mentality. For instance, Korean society includes both progressive and conservative trends, coexisting with the Western and Asian mentalities; a dual class system with the emergence of the middle and the poor classes alongside a very powerful rich class; a division among the generations, as with individualism of the younger generations nurtured on Western culture and the traditional patriarchy of older generations; and a duality between family centered on the relationships of couples and children and society composed of collective families centered on adults. Finally, Korean society shows discrepancies between action and mindset. Although many Koreans have a Western mentality, their actions reflect a very conservative tendency, which grows even more pronounced with age (Chung 1999). The Korean family is in transition, and one result of these opposing forces is confusion.

“Despite these changes, family laws and policies in Korea still represent the traditional value systems in many aspects. Countering this have been recent movements toward improving individual and women's rights. The family law reform in 1991, for example, included an asset partition claim right for women and visitation rights for noncustodial parents. Also, new family law entitles a divorced woman to a share of the couple's property based on the extent of her contribution to it. Furthermore, custody of the children, which used to be automatically awarded to the father upon divorce, will now be decided in court. Drastic changes in the property inheritance system include eliminating discrimination against daughters. When her husband dies, a childless widow will be entitled to half of the inheritance, with the other half going to the husband's parents. The law was abolished that prohibited a woman's remarriage until six months after the end of a former marriage. However, the new family law does not completely abolish the controversial head-of-the-family system, which Confucians lobbied to preserve. More political and legal support is needed for the welfare of elderly and children, as well as for types of families that remain in the minority, such as singles, homosexuals, and remarried couples.

Traditional Rural Family Life Versus Modern Urban Life in South Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Today, when most Koreans live in cities, there is much nostalgia for the days when farming households often consisted of grandparents, parents, and children — three (and sometimes even four) generations under one roof. There was no old age insurance or social security system, so different generations of a family took care of each other. Grandparents took care of infant grandchildren and it was common to see an old woman with a blanket tied around her containing a baby or even a toddler. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The grandmother would go around the village on errands or visiting neighbors with the child strapped to her back, each contentedly keeping company with the other. The grandfather would go out and make his own rounds of visits with other elderly men of the village, sometimes sitting to play a board game or dropping in to the wineshop for a drink. This went on while the middle generation — the parents — were busy working and the school-age children were in classes or helping in the fields. There was a place for everyone and considerable freedom to move around and enjoy friends.

“City life has changed that, and in today's high-rise apartment buildings there is little to compare with the social interaction that was so much a part of Korean village life. Nor is there the space. Korean farmhouses were never roomy, but it was easy enough to step outside onto the porch, or into the yard, or out into the village pathways to encounter neighbors. Elderly people nowadays find it boring to be cooped up in apartments with elevators that can only take them down to traffic-choked streets where there is nothing to do but shop. The neighbors are rarely old friends, and there is a feeling that much has been lost in the rush to "progress" from traditional to modern life. Now that there is medical insurance and a certain amount of old age pension support, older Koreans often opt for their own apartments and live apart from their adult children for as long as they can. In this respect modern urban life in Korea resembles life in the United States.”

Government Help for Families in South Korea

According to the OECD: “Like many countries, Korea has struggled with a declining fertility rate putting stress on the future economy. The Korean government has supported a number of initiatives since the early 2000s so that parents are not forced to choose between work and family commitments. [Source: OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)Better Life Index]

“For example, formal childcare has been made a priority, first increasing and expanding the subsidy in 2004, and then dropping the income-test in 2013 and further extending coverage to children aged 3-5 years. These changes created a universal programme of public assistance for centre-based childcare. Overall, public spending on early childhood education and care increased from 0.1 percent of GDP in 2000 to 0.9 percent in 2014, the highest increase in public investment in this area in any OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)country. This had a positive impact on enrolment rates for children aged 0-2 years, increasing from 4 percent in 2002 to 35 percent in 2014. Enrolment for children aged 3-5 years also increased significantly from 31 percent in 2005 to 92 percent in 2014.

“Korean parents can also better manage their time thanks to a system of child-related leaves until their child’s second birthday. Employed parents are entitled to three types of leave, including maternity leave, paternity leave and parental leave as well as financial support for maternity and parental leave. The extension of duration and increase in payment rates for maternity and parental leave have increased take-up of maternity leave in the private sector fivefold between 2002 and 2015.

Single-Person Households Rapidly Increasing in Seoul

As of 2010, almost one in four households in Seoul consisted of just one person, according to the city’s census. Lee Ji-yoon wrote in the Korea Herald: “Single-person households jumped from 4.5 percent in 1980 to 23.8 percent in 2010, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government. The average number of family members also continued to decrease from 4.47 in 1980 to 2.76 in 2010. [Source: Lee Ji-yoon, Korea Herald, January 4, 2011]

Their number increased more than 10-fold between 1980 and 2010, while the total population of Seoul nearly doubled in the same period. “A growing number of single people are choosing not to marry or get married late. The increasing rate of divorce and the aging population may have also affected the recent trend,” said a city official.

“In Seoul, the number of married people decreased 35 percent between 1990 and 2009. However, the city’s divorce rate almost doubled during the same period. Amid a rapidly aging population here, there was an increase in the number of senior citizens living alone from 11.8 percent in 1985 to 24.1 percent in 2005.

“The trend was also confirmed in a separate survey conducted recently on 26,000 Seoul citizens aged 15 or older. Asked if marriage was essential, 63.3 percent of the respondents said yes, while 33.3 percent considered marriage “optional.” More than half the respondents, or 55.2 percent, said they were opposed to divorce. Of the senior citizens surveyed, eight in 10 said they didn’t want to live with their children. Only 30.4 percent of those asked said they felt responsible for supporting their aging parents, a drastic decrease from 60.7 percent in 2006. Half the respondents said the responsibility needs to be shared with the government, while 15 percent said elderly people should look out for themselves.”

Families Shrink in Size and Number as Childbirths and Marriages in Korea Decline

According to a United Nations report released in June 2020, South Korea has the world’s lowest birth rate. South Korea's total fertility rate hit a record low of 0.92 in 2019, government data. 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. A rate of 2.1 — or more than two children per couple, if all men and women were married — is need to keep a population from shrinking.

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]

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]

Reuters reported: The U.N. report mentioned above looked at practices that harm women and girls and undermine equality., It said women in South Korea “still face more domestic responsibilities, a glass ceiling at workplaces and new forms of gender-based violence including online sexual abuse, the report said. Crimes involving dating violence and spy cams have led thousands of women in South Korea to protest in recent years, calling for stricter penalties and enforcement of laws. “A strong civil society and women’s groups are critical to addressing the emerging forms of violence,” Won said. Other countries with a low birth rate included Bosnia and Herzegovina and Singapore at 1.2, and Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Portugal at 1.3. [Source: Yonhap, August 26 2020]

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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