Why South Korean Women Aren’t Having Babies

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On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Yejin is cooking lunch for her friends at her apartment, where she lives alone on the outskirts of Seoul, happily single.

While they eat, one of them pulls up a well-worn meme of a cartoon dinosaur on her phone. “Be careful,” the dinosaur says. “Don’t let yourself become extinct like us”.

The women all laugh.

“It’s funny, but it’s dark, because we know we could be causing our own extinction,” says Yejin, a 30-year-old television producer.

Neither she, nor any of her friends, are planning on having children. They are part of a growing community of women choosing the child-free life.

South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world, and it continues to plummet, beating its own staggeringly low record year after year.

Figures released on Wednesday show it fell by another 8% in 2023 to 0.72.

This refers to the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime. For a population to hold steady, that number should be 2.1.

If this trend continues, Korea’s population is estimated to halve by the year 2100.

A ‘national emergency’
Globally, developed countries are seeing birth rates fall, but none in such an extreme way as South Korea.

Its projections are grim.

In 50 years time, the number of working age people will have halved, the pool eligible to take part in the country’s mandatory military service will have shrunk by 58%, and nearly half the population will be older than 65.

This bodes so badly for the country’s economy, pension pot, and security that politicians have declared it “a national emergency”.

For nearly 20 years, successive governments have thrown money at the problem

Couples who have children are showered with cash, from monthly handouts to subsidised housing and free taxis. Hospital bills and even IVF treatments are covered, though only for those who are married.

Such financial incentives have not worked, leading politicians to brainstorm more “creative” solutions, like hiring nannies from South East Asia and paying them below minimum wage, and exempting men from serving in the military service if they have three children before turning 30.

Unsurprisingly, policymakers have been accused of not listening to young people – especially women – about their needs. And so, over the past year we have travelled around the country, speaking to women to understand the reasons behind their decision not to have children.

A 2022 survey found that more women than men — 65 percent versus 48 percent — don’t want children. They’re doubling down by avoiding matrimony (and its conventional pressures) altogether. The other term in South Korea for birth strike is “marriage strike.”

The trend is killing South Korea. For three years in a row, the country has recorded the lowest fertility rate in the world, with women of reproductive age having fewer than one child on average. It reached the “dead cross,” when deaths outnumbered births, in 2020, nearly a decade earlier than expected.

Young Koreans have well-documented reasons not to start a family, including the staggering costs of raising children, unaffordable homes, lousy job prospects and soul-crushing work hours. But women in particular are fed up with this traditionalist society’s impossible expectations of mothers. So they’re quitting.

President Yoon Suk-yeol, elected last year, has suggested feminism is to blame for blocking “healthy relationships” between men and women. But he’s got it backward — gender equality is the solution to falling birthrates. Many of the Korean women shunning dating, marriage and childbirth are sick of pervasive sexism and furious about a culture of violent chauvinism. Their refusal to be “baby-making machines,” according to protest banners I’ve seen, is retaliation.

BBC

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