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South Korea’s birth rate has become a national emergency


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The writer is a professor of law at Seoul National University

South Korea has beaten its own record once again. The country has registered a new low in its already faltering birth rate. The rate for 2023 was just 0.72. This is an unprecedented number in the global community (the average for OECD countries was 1.58 in 2021).

At the current pace, the South Korean population will be halved by 2100 to just 24mn. In 2022, 249,000 babies were born. For the country’s labour market to function, South Korea needs 500,000 babies a year at a minimum. It is operating at half that figure.

And don’t forget that this is the scorecard after the injection of around $247bn by the government since 2006. A host of childcare vouchers and direct grants have not had the desired impact.

It was as long ago as 2005 that the birth rate of 1.2 first startled South Korea, causing the government to realise the extent of the problem and begin working on it. The Presidential Committee on Ageing Society and Population Policy was established. It is still at the helm of national policy. But despite these efforts, South Korea has reached a point where the problem is becoming more of a national emergency.

The short-sighted, small-family campaigns of the 1970s and 80s played a role in the current predicament — “One child per family is still too many for Korea” was the slogan then. But experts agree that there are two outstanding culprits today: the exorbitant cost of education and housing. Fearful of these twin expenses, young couples have not dared to have and raise children.

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The government may be able to find a way to deal with the housing issue. Agencies can control housing prices through taxation and construction permits, and offer preferential packages to families with young children through special laws and regulation. It is difficult and costly, of course, but doable. 

When it comes to schooling, however, things are different. A huge number of South Korean children attend private teaching institutions, regardless of whether they also go to public schools. In 2022, South Korea registered its highest tuition expenditure for private education yet, spending almost $20bn. This number does not even show the full picture; there are myriad associated costs, such as those of books, materials, counselling fees and food. 

It is therefore not uncommon for families in Seoul to spend a significant portion of their monthly household income on private education. According to a December 2023 report released by the Federation of Korean Industries, 26 per cent of the drastic drop in birth rates between 2015 and 2022 was attributed to the prohibitive cost of private education for potential parents.

This problem is difficult to fix because it is so intertwined with the country’s culture. South Korean society is deeply competitive. This will take time to change. In the meantime, artificial intelligence and digitalisation may have a role to play in reducing the cost of private education.

AI-enabled education programmes could replace conventional, late-night in-person cramming at teaching institutions. Digitalisation could help make private education more accessible for poorer families. Of course, both moves have their own perils — the possibility that they might engender further competition between children is an important concern. But with planning, these side-effects can be curbed.

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Many countries are witnessing a decline in birth rates. Earlier this month, France, alarmed by the lowest birth rate in almost three decades in 2023 — at 1.68 compared with South Korea’s 0.72 — announced a major reform to its parental leave system. But while South Korea may not be unique in facing this problem, or in attempting to tackle its causes, it stands alone in just how bad things have become.



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