South Korea's total fertility rate fell to 0.78 last year, down from 0.81 a year earlier, according to Statistics Korea.
The total fertility rate is the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime. Experts believe the rate should be at least 2.1 to keep South Korea's population stable.
The country's rate last year is the lowest since 1970, when the statistics agency began compiling related data. In 2018, the country’s total fertility rate dropped below 1 for the first time to 0.98, and has continued to fall.
It is also the lowest among the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. South Korea has recorded the lowest total fertility rate among OECD countries ever since 2013. As of 2020, it was the only country among them to have a rate below 1 at 0.8. Its figure for last year is even less than half of the average OECD total fertility rate of 1.59 in 2020.
Last year, South Korea’s population shrank by 123,800, the largest-ever decrease. The country reported more deaths than births for the first time in 2020. More serious is the speed of population decrease. The reduction in population accelerated from 32,000 in 2020 to 57,000 in 2021 and 123,800 in 2022. Last year, the number of births fell to an all-time low while deaths rose to an all-time high.
Population declined in all of the country’s 17 metropolises and provinces except the city of Sejong last year. In the year before last, it increased in two metropolises -- Sejong and Ulsan -- as well as Gyeonggi Province.
Concerns that the country’s population decrease may be becoming permanent are mounting as the low birthrate and aging of society persist.
Elementary schools even in Seoul have closed down, provincial universities are on the brink of shutdown and obstetric and pediatric hospitals are going out of business. If things continue like this, some experts predict, a sharp drop of the working-age population will drag down the potential growth rate to the level of 0 percent by 2030. Pension and education reforms the government is pushing will be effectively impossible.
The government spent an estimated 280 trillion won ($214 billion) in the 16 years to 2021 to respond to the country’s low birthrate, but the outcome seems to be insignificant considering the enormous budget. This brings attention to the limitations of ways to raise the birthrate by paying people to have babies.
Obviously the government sometimes needs to offer fragmentary support such as childbirth grants and a child allowance. However, the country is now at a critical point requiring comprehensive and strong measures.
An array of factors has been long known for the reasons behind a declining birthrate. Difficulty in balancing work and parenting, burdensome private education expenses, inordinately high prices of houses and difficulty in getting jobs are often blamed for young people avoiding marriage and childbirth. Also, anxieties about the present and future life seem to make people hesitate to have a family with children.
The decreasing population has emerged as an issue for the whole country to tackle. It is a serious matter directly connected to the sustainability of Korean society. Without extraordinary measures, the country’s population will shrink further.
In order to respond effectively to the low birthrate problem, the nation’s command center for population policy must perform its functions properly. But the presence of the Presidential Committee on Aging Society and Population Policy, launched in 2005, has been insignificant. It falls way down the pecking order so that it can hardly expect cooperation from government ministries.
The steering committee's first meeting was held Tuesday, nine months after President Yoon Suk Yeol was inaugurated. The government and society at large seem to be too easygoing about the country's superlow birthrate. As chairperson of the population policy committee, Yoon himself must preside over its meeting often and coordinate policies.
The government must tackle the country's population problem as a top priority and make all-out efforts. Every state policy must be redrawn from a standpoint friendly to childbirth and parenting, and pushed forward with strong leadership.