South Korea has one of the lowest birthrate (total fertility rate) figures in the world. The 2023 statistics from the United Nations Population Fund estimates a rate of 0.9 births per woman, with only Hong Kong lower at 0.8. The World Bank 2020 estimates had the same ranking, with South Korea at 0.81 and Hong Kong 0.77.
The fertility rate required to maintain population at its current level (replacement rate) is 2.1 births per woman, and the worldwide fertility rate is 2.3. A fertility rate of 0.9 forebodes a population crash of cataclysmic proportions which can be mitigated only by massive immigration which would have the consequence of Korea no longer being Korean. Clearly, something extraordinary is going on in South Korea. Across the demilitarised zone, North Korea has a birthrate of 1.8, still below replacement, but twice that of its ethnically identical neighbour to the south and the same as France, Ireland, Mexico, and New Zealand—and nobody holds out North Korea as a paradise for any of its inmates.
Juwon Park, Asia entertainment editor for the Associated Press, posted a long Twitter thread explaining her personal view of why South Korea’s birthrate has collapsed. Here is the entire thread collected into one document by Thread Reader.
There are lots of articles about the low birthrate in Korea. I will probably never have kids, and my reason is simple: I don’t want to go through what my parents went through. Like spending their salary on hagwon fees to nunchi game at work balancing long work hrs w child caring.
So I got a job right after college bc i was so, so determined to be financially independent from young age. My brother who went to a Korean school is now studying for a certificate exam while in college so he can apply for jobs. Another $$ out of my parents’ pocket. Inevitable.
Well, he could take on part time jobs. But it makes more sense for him to focus on the exam and pass the test so he can get a job asap. Korean companies like to hire fresh graduates and they don’t want someone beyond early 30s so his clock is ticking. Hence the parental support$.
We are not finished yet! The avg apt in Seoul costs around $700,000. So after getting thru all the hurdles, you still need to save up for the overpriced Seoul apartment. Why can’t you rent? Bc property became an investment tool. And house is a huge plus in the marriage market.
A lot of western media reports focus on misogyny and gender inequality when covering the low birthrate issue. Yes, they are valid reasons but they don’t fully explain the phenomenon. Systematic inequality, labor condition and housing cost need to be addressed more in my opinion.
Anecdotally, no one around me is saying “oh, I won’t have kids in Korea bc of misogyny” (except for some activists). Yes, that is on our mind and we are not disregarding that fact. But people are more worried about bread and butter issue.
Ppl in my generation (or at least myself) believed in the older generation’s promises that things will turn out okay if we follow certain paths and formulas, and to certain extent, I did believe in this, until i realized i can’t even afford jeonse deposit w/o my parents’ support.
Since my parents spent almost their entire income on my education, they never owned a house until 3-4 yrs ago. We moved over 20 times over the course of three decades. Many S Korean parents chose education over a house. The issue is many didn’t save up enough for their retirement
Luckily, my parents are beneficiaries of the gov pension (this was prob their insurance when they spent all their income on my education). My friends say I am lucky bc I don’t have to worry about looking after my parents financially bc they have to. Another reason for no kid.
Korean terms used in the thread:
Chaebol (재벌) — Large family-owned industrial conglomerate company. Examples are Samsung, Hyundai, and LG.
Hagwon (학원) — For-profit private educational institution (“cram school”). In 2022, 78% of South Korean grade school students attended one or more and spent an average of 7.2 hours per week in instruction.
Gyopo (교포/僑胞) — Member of the Korean diaspora abroad, sometimes used pejoratively implying they have lost their Korean roots.
Nunchi (눈치) — Art of listening and gauging the moods of others, “emotional intelligence”.