Fighting Demographic Doom
By Andy Jackson
Korea is committing slow-motion suicide.
For the second year in a row, the World Health Organization has placed Korea at the bottom of the rankings for fertility rate at only 1.22 children per woman. That number is just over half the 2.3 fertility rate that is considered necessary to maintain a nation's population.
A low fertility rate is hardly new for Korea, which is now in its second generation of sub-replacement fertility. However, Korea's dearth of babies has become more pronounced over the past two decades, with fertility falling from 1.6 in the 1990s and 1.4 only a few years ago.
Of course, this is only a problem if you believe that the world will be a poorer place if there are fewer Koreans in it, both in absolute terms and proportionately (low fertility hardly being a worldwide phenomenon). It is also a problem if you are trying to figure out who is going to be doing the work needed to support Korea's aging population. Immigration and work visas can provide a short-term solution to gaps in the labor pool, but, without an increase in Korea's fertility rate, that is a formula for eventually making Koreans a minority in their own land.
The Lee Myung-bak administration and local governments in Korea are concerned enough that they are seeking ways to increase the number of children being born, with reduced daycare prices for second and third children, subsidized hospital visits for giving birth and even cash bonuses for couples who have at least three children.
Gangnam-gu, Seoul's wealthiest district, has recently even gotten into the match-making business, hosting an event to introduce 30 pairs of professional men and women to each other through evening ice-breaking games in the hope that some of them will pair up and eventually have children.
There is also a movement among OBGYNs seeking to reduce the number of their colleagues working in the lucrative abortion business by urging for better enforcement of Korea's supposedly strict laws against the procedure. The group's spokeswoman, Choi Anna, said in a recent interview, ``We believe when doctors halt abortions, births could increase by more than 100,000 in one to two years."
While seeking to reduce Korea's atrociously high abortion rate (estimated to be as high as seven for every nine live births) is a laudable goal in and of itself, it would likely not be as effective in increasing Korea's birthrate as Choi believes. Decreasing the availability of the procedure would also marginally decrease sexual activity among young people and cause those who are sexually active to be more diligent in their use of contraception.
So then what can the national government do to increase Korea's fertility rate? It must address a fundamental truth: Over the past 50 years children have gone from being an economic asset to an economic liability for families. Rather than being another pair of hands to do the family's business, children spend the better part of 20-plus years being a drain on resources.
To be more succinct, most families in Korea simply cannot afford to raise more than one or two children.
The government is not going to get people who have made a lifestyle choice not to have children to change their minds. However, by making the cost of raising children more affordable, the government can help couples decide to have two children instead of one, or three children instead of two.
Government efforts to subsidize birth and childcare costs are a step in the right direction but are hardly sufficient. If the Lee administration's recently initiated ``Increase Koreans" campaign is to have an impact, it must address education expenses, which are the biggest costs that additional children bring to their families.
A report released by the Bank of Korea last month noted that household spending on education in Korea is several times that of other advanced nations such as the United States, France and Germany. That figure is more remarkable since Korea's low birthrate means that the typical household has fewer children to educate.
There are a couple of things the government can do to make education more affordable.
First, education at government-run schools should be free from kindergarten through 12th grade. Parents currently pay for their children's secondary education.
The government should also seek to even out some of the differences between the nation's 30 foreign-language high schools, which disproportionately send their graduates to elite universities, and local academic and vocational high schools. Greater equality among high schools should help relieve the pressure parents feel to spend ever-increasing portions of their income on private education for their elementary- and middle-school children.
An added benefit of more evenly distributing the quality of education is that middle income and working-class families will feel less pressure to move to housing they cannot afford in order to get their children in the right schools.
When parents can afford more children they will have more children.
Andy Jackson has taught courses on American government and has been writing on Korean politics and other issues for four years. He is the chairman of Republicans Abroad-Korea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.