OPINION

[Lee Jae-min] Finally, a sub-1 birthrate -- What’s wrong with us?

By Lee Jae-min
  • Published : Mar 5, 2019 - 17:12
  • Updated : Jun 13, 2019 - 11:20

Last week was all about Hanoi. But hidden in the stack of news reports from Hanoi was that South Korea broke a record again -- this time in the category of birthrate.

In 2018 population data, released by Statistics Korea on Feb. 27: Births in 2018 were 326,900, down from 357,800 in 2017. The birthrate in 2018 was reported to be just 0.98, compared to 1.05 in 2017. Alarms rang out loudly last year when the 400,000 mark was breached, then regarded as a Maginot Line. We are now even approaching the 300,000 line. And critically, this time yet another psychological line of the ‘one-child’ birthrate has been crossed.

To put it into perspective: This is the world’s lowest number, except for countries at war or in an economic disaster on a temporary basis. Most likely, the streak is not over yet, and we will probably get an even lower number next year. This pace means the population will be halved by 2100 to 25 million. Just 80 years away. And don’t forget this is the result after pouring in a whopping 126 trillion won ($111.9 billion) since 2006.

Let’s step back and examine this. Something’s got to be wrong with us. Many societies are facing similar demographic problems, but ours is way different -- continuously and stably different.

At least one thing is clear. Our policies on this issue since 2006 have failed. Just like the fine dust problem, each year we worry and each season national debates flare up, but concrete actions do not follow.

Let me clarify. There are actions, but they are either too late, too dispersed or too fragmented. They are implemented piecemeal by different entities nationwide. Also, any measure in the right direction is too weak and too modest to turn the tide, making even 126 trillion won in spending feel like a drop in the bucket.

We can no longer afford the same routine. We have reached a point where we should treat this problem as a sort of national emergency. Any country with the world’s lowest birthrate for several years would react the same way.

So, what are the reasons? Several structural traits of Korean society have contributed to this chronic problem. Exorbitant education expenses, high housing costs, cutthroat competition in education and at the workplace and the still family-unfriendly work environment are cited as main culprits. All these traits are deeply embedded in our way of living and working.

Desperately swimming and surviving, the young generation has lost confidence in their future and that of their potential children. Their negative experiences are affecting how they view the prospects of the next generation.

So, it is not fair to blame the government or any particular administration for the matter. The problem is structural. We all know the problem and the reasons that create the problem, but we do not know what to do.

Let’s try to face the problem one step at a time. First and foremost, it is critical to have a national control tower for this crucial matter. Every year each ministry issues a variety of policies within its jurisdiction to boost birthrates. Not to be outdone, local governments also adopt and advertise their own programs. Few of them, however, are introduced and implemented under strong coordination and prioritization by a central control tower. Piecemeal measures by different entities are far from a synergy effect or a concerted response to a structural problem.

Actually, there is a special committee for this issue: the Presidential Committee on Aging Society and Population Policy.

Established in 2004, this committee is chaired by the president with seven cabinet members along with 17 civilian experts. Its function, however, has been largely policy development, consultation and recommendation. Strong leadership crisscrossing jurisdictions of different ministries and agencies to guide them in a concerted direction is not in the portfolio.

Now is the time for a clear mandate for the committee to lead, with strong authority, national projects and programs. Our future hinges on the demographic policy.


Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at jaemin@snu.ac.kr. -- Ed.