South Korea's fertility rate plunges to record low

STORY: South Korea’s fertility rate is already the world’s lowest. And it continued its dramatic decline in 2023.

“The number of newborns in 2023 was 230,000, which is 19,200 down or a decrease of 7.7% from a year earlier. The total fertility rate recorded was 0.72, which is 0.06 down from 0.78 the previous year.”

That was Lim Young-il, head of the vital statistics division at Statistics Korea, speaking on Wednesday (February 27).

The birth rate is far below the rate of 2.1 per woman needed for a steady population and well behind the rate of 1.24 in 2015 when concerns about issues such as the cost of housing and education were lower.

Experts say women concerned about their career advancement and the financial cost of raising children have decided to delay childbirth or to not have babies.

Being married is seen as a prerequisite to having children in South Korea, but marriages are also declining.

Office worker Kim Seul-ki says she is also concerned about balancing work with a family.

“There will probably be a situation when my child is sick and I need to leave the office to take care of it. But under the current work environment, women can’t just leave the office whenever they want to take care of their sick kids, as this could be disruptive to their careers. So I think this is the biggest reason why young people aren’t having kids.”

The figures come despite the more than $270 billion spent by the country on areas like childcare subsidies since 2006 to try to reverse the trend that led the population to decline for a fourth straight year in 2023.

South Korea’s demographic crisis has become the top risk to economic growth and the social welfare system, with the country’s population of 51 million on track to halve by the end of this century.

South Korea has previously projected its fertility rate is likely to fall further to 0.68 in 2024.

Ahead of elections in April, South Korea’s major political parties vowed more public housing and easier loans to encourage childbirth, aiming to allay fears of “national extinction” as fertility rates crumble.

South Korea is not alone in the region struggling with a rapidly aging population. Neighboring Japan said on Tuesday the number of babies born in 2023 fell for an eighth straight year to a fresh record low.

Japan’s fertility rate hit a record low of 1.26 in 2022, while China recorded 1.09, also a record low.

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