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South Korea most expensive country in world to raise kids

May 18, 2023

Extra tuition costs take a large bite out of family finances and are a contributing factor to families choosing to have only one child.

A child playing with a toy
Experts hope Korean society might gradually change and place less emphasis on school learning to the exclusion of a more relaxed childhoodImage: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

South Korea is the most expensive country in the world to raise a child to the age of 18, according to a recent study, a finding that provides a clear explanation for the nation's falling fertility rate and the looming population crisis.

The annual study by the Beijing-based YuWa Population Research Institute ranked South Korea top of the list of nations for raising a child, with the cost coming to 7.79 times the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, reported. That works out as KRW365 million (€251,562, $271,957).

China is second on the list, with the cost of bringing up a child 6.9 times per capita GDP, followed by Germany at 3.64 times and France at 2.24 times.

At the same time as spending on children is rising, the number of children being born in the world's 10th largest economy is going in the other direction. Figures released in March show that the nation's fertility rate stands at 0.78, meaning that for every 100 women, just 78 babies will be born throughout their lifetimes.

Falling fertility rate

That is the lowest figure in the world and a sharp decline from a rate of 1.48 as recently as 2000. In 1980, South Korea's fertility rate stood at 2.82 and a solid 5.95 in 1960.

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Experts warn that the nation needs to maintain a fertility rate of 2.1 to maintain a stable population without resorting to immigration.

For Koreans, the single largest cost for a child goes on education expenses beyond regular public schooling. In 2022, the Chosun Ilbo pointed out, Koreans spent KRW26 trillion (€17.94 billion) on private cram schools for their children, a figure that works out as KRW524,000 (€361.53) each month per child.

"Korea is a very education-focused society, and for most families, extra lessons after regular school ends are just accepted as normal," said Han Ye-jung, a lawyer with a 31-month old daughter.

Cram schools are known as "hagwon" in South Korea and children often start when they are just 4 years old, typically to learn English as they play, Han told DW.

"This is a big trend in Seoul at the moment and people pay a lot of money every month for these English kindergartens because they believe it is easier for children to learn the language when they are young and it is a really important skill to have," she said.

Han admits that she often talks about education options when she meets up with her friends or family members, with the daughter of a cousin recently joining an English kindergarten.

Another factor behind parents' decisions to send kids to afterschool classes is the high number of working mothers in South Korea, with cram schools also providing a place for children to be supervised.

Focus on English, math

And while private institutions also offer sports classes or instruction in music or other cultural pursuits, Han agrees that most classes are for English and math – the subjects critical to ensuring access to a good high school, followed by a good university and, hopefully, a good career.

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"A good private education on top of regular school is meant to make sure that a child gets good grades and a place at one of the best universities," Han said. "And that should mean a good job, so getting into a top university is critical as it guarantees success in life."

Park Saing-in, an economist at Seoul National University, agrees that an exceptionally large proportion of household income is spent on education – and he is not convinced the "competition" is positive for young people.

"To my mind, there is too much competition in the education sector in Korea, especially when it comes to university entrance exams," he told DW. "Clearly, the more a child studies, the better chance she or he will have of getting into a good university, and while younger children may do things like afterschool classes in sports or music, that eventually gets narrowed down to the subjects they need to get into university."

'Preying on parents'

An editorial in the Chosun Ilbo also accused cram school operators of "preying on [parents'] anxieties" and encouraging them to pay out vast sums to keep up with what the rest of society expects.

Weighed down by the cost of putting a child through many years of extra tuition, it is "no wonder Korea's birth rate is so low," the paper states.

Park – who has no children – is hopeful that Korean society might gradually change and place less emphasis on school learning and more on a relaxed childhood.

"It won't happen in the near future, but I hope it is something that we might see one day in the future," he said. "I believe a good education is important and will lead to a good university and career, but many people in Korea – myself included – believe that spending on private education has gone too far and we need a better balance."

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Edited by: Shamil Shams

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea