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The Peninsula

Demographic Changes Lead to Legal Changes

Published April 10, 2022

On April 5, President Moon’s Cabinet approved a bill allowing single people to adopt children. The Civil Act and the Family Litigation Act currently limit adoptions to married couples, but the change acknowledges the reality of single-member families accounting for almost one-third of households in South Korea. As the population ages and more young people delay or avoid marriage, the legal system is adapting to reflect the rapidly changing notion of “family.”

For the past few years, South Korea’s declining birthrate has been a major public policy challenge. Critics note that the government has pursued policies to increase the birthrate without addressing root causes such as the inflexibility in the labor market that prevents female workers from balancing career and raising a family. Unable to reverse the falling birthrate the government also adopted policies to better support single mothers, but these measures still did not provide support for work-life balance, which continued to discourage women from having children.

While the new bill allowing single people to adopt is a huge step in the right direction, legal and social attitudes toward single-person households still lag behind the demographic reality. Single parenthood and cohabitation continue to be stigmatized. The current law defines family as being constituted through marriage, blood relations, or adoption. Pregnancies and births outside of marriage face restrictions, and children born to single mothers are often considered illegitimate. The new bill also does not address the broader, underlying factors driving the declining birthrate.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Kayla Harris, David Lee, Sarah Marshall, and Mai Anna Pressley. Graph by Kayla Harris and Sarah Marshall. Picture from the flickr account of Henri Bergius

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