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South Korea’s fertility rate falls to record low


SEOUL — South Korea has smashed its own world record — but it’s not one that the country is happy about, with statistics showing Wednesday that the birthrate has fallen to another low.

The numbers highlight the worsening demographic challenges in this rapidly aging society and the difficulties of reversing the decline when women say patriarchal systems make it difficult to have children and a career.

South Korea’s fertility rate — the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime — fell to 0.78 in 2022 from 0.81 the previous year, a new world low. The figure, released by government-run Statistics Korea, marks the seventh straight year of decline.

That’s compared with a rate of 1.3 in neighboring Japan and just under 1.7 in the United States. These levels are still below the “replacement level” of 2.1 to keep the population stable without migration.

This demographic slump is bogging down the growth prospects of Asia’s fourth-largest economy. In one example, some 300 public schools closed across the country over the past decade.

As South Korea’s working-age population shrinks, a shortage in tax revenue is a major concern amid the growing burden of elderly care. Official estimates show that South Korea’s pension fund is expected to run out by 2055.

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In a bid to reverse this trend, the South Korean government has made population a top policy priority and boosted spending on the matter. The resulting programs have centered on subsidies for pregnancy, childbirth and child care. While such incentives have so far failed to reverse the birthrate’s plunge, the government’s response has largely been to pour more money into the policy.

Last year, Seoul announced a monthly allowance of 1 million won ($767) for every family with a newborn. It was a campaign promise of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who said before taking office in May that he would “overcome the national calamity of low birthrate.”

Rather than cash incentives, though, experts say policies should tackle more fundamental problems that drain family resources, such as limited living space, long work hours and a cutthroat education landscape in the highly competitive society. Women’s rights advocates point to sexist norms that make it hard for working women to balance a career and motherhood.

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Wednesday’s census data also showed that South Korea, population 52 million, again recorded more deaths than births last year: 249,000 births and 373,000 deaths.

The gap is expected to narrow in coming years as South Korea recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, said Lim Young-il of Statistics Korea.

While South Korea managed to control the virus with widespread vaccination and testing, its covid-19 death toll stands at more than 33,000. Under nationwide social distancing rules, the number of marriages in the country dropped below 200,000 in 2021, the lowest since records started in 1970.

“Because marriage, and childbirth in that vein, have been on a constant decline for a while, the (post-pandemic) numbers might rebound a little, but even that still looks difficult,” Lim told reporters on Wednesday.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.