South Korea acts to boost births

Posted: 30 May 2004

The South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare has unveiled a proposal to try to stem the country's plunging birth rate, including financial incentives for families that have more than one child.

Under the proposed incentives, the government would pay for half the cost of childbirth for a second child and all the expenses for subsequent children.

Just one generation ago, the government was exhorting South Koreans to have fewer offspring with offers such as free vasectomies and tax breaks for families with fewer children.

The National Statistical Office estimates that South Korean women average 1.17 babies each. However to maintain the population a rate of about 2.1 is needed. The fall in birth rate is causing concern as a smaller labour pool and fewer workers to support the elderly will have severe economic repercussions.

The fall in the country's birth rate goes hand in hand with the changing role of women in society. South Korean women are now marrying later and choosing to have fewer children. The lack of quality, affordable childcare is a factor, as is the expense of educating children in a highly pressurised society.

Social trends

According to a report in the South China Morning Post, women's groups have criticised the government for failing to come up with proposals to improve the role of women in society and make it easier for them to combine a career with motherhood. New research has indicated that Korea's declining birth rate is not due to the decline in children being born to married couples but to changing social trends, including later marriage and a decline in the number of marriages.

According to a recent poll, reported by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, 46.3 per cent of all respondents said their unwed state was involuntary, while 37.1 per cent said they preferred being single.

In addition, 16.3 per cent of men and a surprisingly high 37.9 per cent of women said they did not think marriage was a necessity, an indication that the traditional values of finding a mate by a certain age are eroding.

According to another study by Choi Kyung-soo of the Korea Development Institute, the average age for people getting married for the first time moved up from 24.1 in 1985 to 27.1 in 2002. This has changed the average age for people having their firstborn from 24.9 in 1985 to 28.3 in 2002.

The fall in the total fertility rate of South Koran women to 1.17 in 2002 compares to 2.1 in 1983 and 6 in 1960.

Over the past three decades the birth rate has halved, falling from 1 million newborns in 1970, to 637,000 in 2000 and 495,000 in 2002.

Sources: South China Morning Post, 27 March 2004 and Korean Times, 27 May, 2004.