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The Peninsula

Demographic Decline in South Korea

Published September 21, 2018
Category: South Korea

Kylan Toohey

In 2017, the fertility rate in South Korea reached a record low of 1.05, a decrease of over 12 percent from 2016. If this persists South Korea’s population is expected to begin declining by 2027, an alarmingly early date. This “demographic crisis” is representative of a larger problem, one that reflects the struggles of a society struggling to adapt to its relatively newfound modernity in work and education opportunities.

In order to understand why South Korea is experiencing such rapid population decline, it is important to look at the broader societal conditions that have made it overly burdensome for South Koreans to have children. While these factors are all technically intertwined, it is helpful to examine them one by one to understand their individual implications for the long-term struggle to revive the South Korean birth rate.

First, the ever increasing costs of education. In South Korea, education is perceived to be directly linked to employment, and even marriage prospects. As a result, typical Korean parents will do whatever it takes to send their child to the best schools and hire the best tutors. However, as a result of this high competition, education costs have soared in recent decades. A 2015 report studying the value of private education in South Korea cited estimates as high as $25 billion, reflecting the competitiveness of the market for top-notch schools that parents view as essential for their children’s success later in life. Thus, rather than be forced by economic constraints to send their children to second-rate schools and potentially jeopardize their chances for success, young South Korean couples are instead foregoing having children entirely.

Second, rampant youth unemployment further exacerbates concerns over education. Recent data from the Ministry of Employment and Labor revealed that some 11.3 percent of Korean youth between the ages of 15 and 29 are out of work, a number nearly three times the overall unemployment rate. This alarmingly high rate of youth unemployment is the direct consequence of an economy dominated by a few giant conglomerates that generate over half of the country’s GDP, but cannot absorb the supply of over-educated and over-qualified youths entering the job market.

As South Korea faces no shortage of highly-educated young job seekers, this misallocation of labor and investment has created a job industry so competitive that Korean youth are forced through grueling test-taking processes just to get their foot in the door at a company, leaving many discouraged and ultimately jobless. In this environment, few Koreans want to contribute to this problem by having more children that will also have to eventually enter this harsh competition, making this another factor that leads to a declining birth rate for the population.

The question remains on what can be done to combat this steepening decline before it is too late. An aging society like South Korea’s incurs additional costs, such as increased health care expenditure for a growing population of elderly, while a shrinking workforce could harm labor productivity. Moreover, as a country that is still technically at war, South Korea must address the decline of its available military manpower.

While the government has introduced measures to publicly encourage families to have more children, it is vital that the South Korean government more clearly addresses the legitimate concerns of the unemployed youth, as youth unemployment is one of the major contributing factors to the declining birth rate. If South Korean youth are able to find work more easily, then education pressures may lessen and diminish the burden on parents. While there are surely other measures that the government could take, like policies more along the lines of direct assistance to mothers struggling to provide for their children, this would most likely be insufficient in lowering the overall birth rate without some sort of direct action taken toward lessening youth unemployment as well. If not, South Korea will soon find itself among the ranks of countries such as China and Japan in terms of an overly aged population and nearly negligible birth rate to counter it.

Kylan Toohey is a graduate student with the Asian Studies program at GWU. She is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. 

Photo from hjl’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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