Are South Koreans at risk of 'extinction'?

Alarmist local media reports grim forecast if current low birth rates persist in South Korea.

    In the 1960s and 1970s, South Koreans did not worry about low birth rates, writes Lankov [EPA]
    In the 1960s and 1970s, South Koreans did not worry about low birth rates, writes Lankov [EPA]

    South Korean newspapers recently published an alarmist report. A study by the National Assembly Research Service in Seoul predicted that by 2750, Koreans will go extinct if current low birth rates are maintained. At the same time, the Korean media reported that this year, for the first time in history, the fertility rate in Seoul, by far the largest South Korean city, dropped below the 1.0 level. This is of largely symbolic importance, of course, because birth rates in Seoul have long been well below the so-called replacement level of 2.1 births per woman - this is the number necessary to maintain a stable population.

    Needless to say, South Korean media wrote panicky commentaries about such developments. However, less than half a century ago, one could find in Korean newspapers very different stories dealing with the fertility rate. In the 1960s and 1970s, South Koreans did not worry about low birth rate: on the contrary, they worried that the fertility rate was too high.

    Back in the 1960s, many Korean villages and towns played host to remarkable rallies in which the parents who had too many children were criticised for being irresponsible, selfish, and short-sighted. One of the common features of such rallies was a small show, a visual presentation of a large family's plight re-enacted by rally participants: A large crowd of sad looking children in rags surrounding their parents slowly walked through the town streets. Such shows were staged to demonstrate that high birth rate meant poverty. Slogans left little doubt that a high birth rate was a menace, incompatible with economic progress and national development: "It is better to have one child and a car than three children."

    Lowest birth rates

    Indeed, South Korea today has one of the lowest birth rates worldwide. In 2013, the average South Korean woman had 1.23 children, and as stated above, the number is lower still in Seoul. However, as recently as 1960, the average number was a staggering 6.16 children per woman.

    The 1960s was a time of great worldwide scare about a "ticking population time bomb", allegedly positioned to undermine the future of the world economy. Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich, whose book "The Population Bomb", which was a manifesto for the campaign to control births worldwide, made apocalyptic predictions: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate..."

    Now we know that Ehrich and his disciples were almost completely wrong: In the 1960s, the world was actually on the brink of a second demographic transition, a dramatic decrease in birth rates. The actual threat has now become not too many children, but too many old people - though few experts realised this at the time.

    Generally speaking, the South Korean government follows world policy trends with great fidelity. Thus, in 1961, when General Park Chung-hee took power in South Korea, he and his advisers prioritised curbing population growth in order to make an economic breakthrough - the latter was their overriding aim.

    The military regime pursued this goal with a remarkable level of efficiency and a measure of ruthlessness. The state propaganda machine began to churn out countless magazines and pamphlets encouraging people to have smaller families, while sterilisation was subsidised and officially encouraged. The results of the programme were remarkable: The birth rate slid from 6.6 in 1960 to 3.5 in 1975. By 1983, the birth rate had reached the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman.

    Family planning discontinued

    This was one of the most dramatic decreases in fertility rates in modern history and happened in the background of what was an almost unprecedented economic breakthrough. It remains unclear, though, to what extent family planning contributed to South Korean stunning economic success. It is just as likely that economic growth, which is associated with education, women's rights and changing attitudes to family roles contributed to smaller family sizes.

    South Koreans may feel a great deal of pride about the fast growth of their life expectancy. After all, they moved from being a poor third-world country in the 1960s to being one of the world leaders in healthcare and medical services. 

    However, South Korean family planning officials soon discovered that the fertility rate did not stabilise at the replacement level. Rather, it continued to plummet further. The family planning programme was discontinued, but this had little, if any, effect on the situation. By 1990, the birth rate was 1.59, 10 years later it was a mere 1.47, and by 2005 it reached its lowest point at 1.08 births per woman. Since then, it has slightly increased and stabilised around 1.2 mark, remaining one of the world's lowest.

    Such levels mean that if life expectancy remains stable, every following generation will be half the size of the previous one. So far, this has not happened, but only because the dramatic decrease in fertility rates in South Korea have coincided with dramatic improvements in life expectancy. In the 66 years that have passed since Korea regained its independence, the average life expectancy has increased from 44 years to 81.4 years - ahead of the US, but slightly behind Japan.

    Fast increase of life expectancy is the only reason that the population of South Korea still continues to grow, but within few years, the decline in fertility rates will start to have an impact. Thus by 2018, the population is predicted to stabilise around the current level, slightly above 50 million, and then begin to decline.

    South Koreans may feel a great deal of pride about the fast growth of their life expectancy. After all, they moved from being a poor third-world country in the 1960s to being one of the world leaders in healthcare and medical services. However, in the long run, this success will bring about unprecedented demographic changes. If projections are correct, by 2050 those over the age of 65 will constitute some 38 percent of South Korea's population. To put things in perspective, it is expected that the share of the elderly will be 20 percent in the US population and 25 percent in the population of UK by the same year.

    Ageing population

    This means that South Korea will soon become one of the first countries to feel the full impact of rapid population ageing. We simply do not know how such a society of seniors will function, but there is little doubt that the challenges will be numerous and difficult to handle.

    Thus far, the South Korean government has tried to encourage both labour migration and international marriages as a means to handle the challenge and to slow down the ageing of South Korea. It may help to some extent, but it probably is not possible to reverse the trend.

    The story of South Korea's family planning policy is deep with irony: In the 1960s and 1970s, the South Korean government may have been the most successful family planner in world history. But the results were unexpected and the success actually has given birth to arguably greater problems. It is fascinating especially if we remember that China followed the lead and is now facing similar problems, though the full force of same problems will hit China later. Nonetheless, panicked reports of the prospect that Koreans might go extinct is another reminder that we should be careful what we wish for.

    Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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