The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Reverse depopulation

Fertility rate hits yet another record low; Number of first graders to fall below 400,000

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 5, 2023 - 05:30

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South Korea’s fertility rate hit yet another record low in the third quarter.

According to data released by Statistics Korea, the average number of children to whom a woman is expected to give birth during her lifetime was 0.7 in the July-September period, down 0.1 from a year ago.

The figure is just a third of the replacement level (2.1) needed to maintain the population of a nation. Considering the trend of the rate to decrease toward the end of the year in Korea, it could fall further to the 0.6 range in the fourth quarter.

The number of births tumbled below 60,000 in the third quarter. It is the first time since related statistics were first compiled that the number of births in the third quarter has fallen that low. It dropped 11.5 percent from a year earlier to 56,794.

The number of marriages, a figure directly related to the birth rate, also decreased. The figure for the third quarter diminished 8.2 percent on-year to 41,706. It is the lowest number since related statistics were compiled in 1981.

South Korea’s fertility rate, among the lowest in the world, seems to have become a source of international concern. Ross Douthat, a New York Times opinion columnist, wrote in a column titled “Is South Korea Disappearing?” that a country (South Korea) that sustained a birth rate at that level would have, for every 200 people in one generation, 70 people in the next one, a depopulation exceeding what the Black Death delivered to Europe in the 14th century. The comparison highlights the seriousness of South Korea’s low birth rate and awakens the Koreans again to their depopulation crisis.

South Korea is reportedly set to record the lowest number of first graders entering elementary school next year. About 357,000 children are expected to enter elementary school in 2024, given that 357,771 were born in 2017. This will be the first time the number has dropped below 400,000. The number of births this year is estimated to fall to around 230,000, so the 300,000 level will likely be broken soon.

Alarms about South Korea’s rapid depopulation keep blaring.

The Economic Research Institute of the Bank of Korea made a pessimistic forecast in a report that if Korea fails to raise its fertility rate, the likelihood of its economic growth rate plunging below zero percent by 2050 would be 68 percent.

Goldman Sachs warned the Korean economy could be surpassed by nations with smaller economies such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Bangladesh by 2075 due to its rapidly declining and aging working population.

South Korea’s depopulation is a complex matter with various factors involved. The government introduced related laws on the low birth rate and aging in 2005 and has tried numerous measures over the last 18 years. It established a presidential committee and spent astronomical amounts of money. But all they achieved was a succession of failures.

Nevertheless, South Korea must keep trying to reverse depopulation. It is a matter of whether the nation will become extinct or not.

The research report blames Korea’s low fertility rate on, among others, fierce competition among young people and the insecurity they feel in employment, housing and child rearing. As key measures, it suggested easing polarization of the labor market, stabilizing housing prices and household debt downward, curbing metropolitan area centralization, and reducing academic competition among students. Each goal is hard to achieve. All of the related ministries must concentrate their policy capabilities on stopping the nation's fertility rate from falling further.

The issue of low birth rates is not a popular issue in an election season. But few things are more important than this for the future of the country. The government and the National Assembly must prioritize this problem. If the birth rate is raised, many problems will begin to be solved easily. There is no time to hesitate.