In the 1960’s, South Korea’s fertility rate displayed an impressive and even slightly concerning population growth, leading the government to implement restrictive population policies. Nowadays, the scenario is significantly different, with the country’s fertility being one of the lowest worldwide. Combining that with an increasingly ageing population, South Korea is currently facing a decline in its population growth, with the natural replacement of generations being at stake. This concerning new demographic paradigm has led the government to take action, committing to increase the country’s birth rate, albeit unsuccessfully.

With these failed attempts, the solution may revolve around changing the women’s role in society, incentivising an active participation in the job market, granting them the same rights and benefits to those of men.

However, this raises the question: is South Korea’s society ready for such a drastic change?

Historical roots

South Korea was established as a nation with the division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II. In the aftermath, an invasion by North Korea of its southern counterpart´s borders triggered an armed conflict between the two, which was only solved by 1953 through the signing of an armistice agreement. Today, South Korea is one of East Asia’s most influential countries, with an economy ranking just behind Japan and China and a population of around 51 million people, of which more than 25 million are established in its capital, Seoul.

In recent years, South Korea has experienced a rapid industrial growth, as well as a vast economic modernization, contributing to the shrinking of the income gap that for many years separated it from the developed Occidental economies and, in some cases, to overcome some of them in GDP per capita (Graph 1). Nevertheless, even if in economic terms this gap is now practically non-existent, when it comes to gender equality and the women’s role in society, South Korea is still very far from the Western standards.


Graph 1 – Real GDP per capita comparison    Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data

Graph 1 – Real GDP per capita comparison

Source: Federal Reserve Economic Data

Window-dressing gender action

With the ever-growing role of women in society after the late 1960s, as they increasingly sought and integrated the job market and pursued higher levels of education, the government enacted the Equal Employment Act in 1987, in order to guarantee equal and fair treatment across the two sexes. However, this proved to be ineffective in practice, as women continued to be victim of lower wages and sexual harassment in the workspace. As a matter of fact, South Korea is still today the worst-performing OECD country in terms of gender wage gap (median wage earnings of women are, on average, 32,5% lower than men’s, as shown by Graph 2).


Graph 2 - Gender wage gap across OECD countries (difference between median men’s and women’s wages)    Source: OECD Data

Graph 2 – Gender wage gap across OECD countries (difference between median men’s and women’s wages)

Source: OECD Data

This discrimination in the labour market is still deeply rooted on the misconception that women are less desirable as employees, as they may require maternity leave in the future as well as leave to take care of their children, should they fall ill. Related to this is the patriarchal view that women are the ones responsible for the care of domestic affairs, leaving men to work to provide for the family. While efforts have been made in changing this current of thought (particularly, with the 2005 decision of South Korea’s Constitutional Court to abolish “hoju”, a family registry system that identified the head of household as a male and that obliged family members to be registered under him), it is still far from reaching the desired effects. In fact, the World Economic Forum and a United Nations report have recently ranked South Korea´s gender empowerment among the lowest in the developed world.

Therefore, this discrimination of women in the job market, centered around their role in the society, has forced many women to choose between professional success and family life, with many opting to forego entirely marriage and children. This is part of a rising social phenomenon in South Korea called the Sampo Generation, with the word ‘sampo’ meaning giving up three things: relationships, marriage and children.

A demographic winter

As a result of the Sampo phenomenon, birth and fertility rates plummeted in recent years, causing demographics in South Korea to take a concerning tumble. In fact, South Korea’s fertility rate has been declining steadily, not being able to reach the minimum threshold (2.1 children per woman, so as to ensure the replacement of the generation) for more than 30 years, nowadays reaching only 1.1 children per woman (an astounding contrast with the impressive rates registered in the 1960s, as seen in Graph 3).


Graph 3 - Total Fertility Rate in South Korea (1955-2020)    Source: Worldometer

Graph 3 – Total Fertility Rate in South Korea (1955-2020)

Source: Worldometer

Moreover, longevity has also been improving in South Korea, with the country displaying one of the highest life expectancies in the world (around 82 years old), a value that the United Nations predict will continue to grow, estimating that, by the end of the century, an average baby born in South Korea will live to the age of 92.

This two effects combined result in an ageing population, with a population growth rate that has been significantly decreasing over the years (Graph 4), a fact that reinforces the notion that, even though a reduction in the country’s population is not yet a reality in the short-run, it seems to be an unavoidable scenario in the long run (Graph 5).

Graph 4 - Rate of population growth in South Korea (1960-2020)    Data source: Populationof.net

Graph 4 – Rate of population growth in South Korea (1960-2020)

Data source: Populationof.net


Graph 5 - Estimated population of South Korea (2021-2050)    Data source: Populationof.net

Graph 5 – Estimated population of South Korea (2021-2050)

Data source: Populationof.net

Promoting population rejuvenation

In order to combat this concerning demographic framework, various measures have been taken by the government in recent years, with a significant $70bn made available to be channelled into incentivising childbirth, marking it as one of the largest childbirth incentives worldwide, encompassing subsidies, facilities, as well as multiple perks for working parents and large families. For instance, in regards to subsidies, 500 000 won (around $500) are awarded to expectant parents so as to help covering prenatal expenses, as well as a monthly allowance  of around 200 000 won ($200) during the infant’s 1st year.

Also, in recent years, the government has been working in providing free day-care services for everyone, implementing more flexible pick up and drop off hours,, as well as allowing for exceptions in which children of both working parents are attributed priority in long day-care waiting lists.

In addition to all these national measures, some specific cities, like Seoul, have applied localised measures such as subsidising fertility treatments, providing free parking or even offering housing assistance.

However, as of today, these measures appear to have had little impact in boosting birth rates. This is probably due to the fact that the issue of the problem lies not in monetary concerns, but on the deeply rooted mentality of South Korea’s society, which attributes primacy of work over family, making it hard for women to conciliate the two realities (inevitably leading them to choose one over the other).

 

Paving the way through the correction of a historical problem

The solution to this demographic problem seems to revolve around increasing women’s participation in the labour force, actively incentivising it by granting them the same salary rights as men, as well as offering more benefits for working mothers. In fact, this can only be achieved if women are allowed the proper balance between work and family, leaving them enough time to dedicate to their children, as well as granting them the maternity leave they are entitled to and also not using that matter as a discriminatory selection criterion in job interviews.

In sum, while this seems to be the best course of action to take in order to invert the current demographic situation, there is still a long path ahead when it comes to women empowerment in South Korea. In fact, even if some legal action has been taken towards the goal of gender equality, in practice, this change is yet to be felt.

Bridging the gender gap as the sole way of reinventing South Korea

As long as society’s mentality remains unchanged, it is unlikely that the government will succeed in combining an increase in women’s participation in the labour force with a rise in birth rates, dooming the country to suffer the consequences of a long economic and demographic winter.

Sources: Asiasociety.org, BBC, Bloomberg, History, JSTOR, Kostat, Populationof.net, The Economist, Wilson Center, World Bank, Worldometer

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