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Why South Korean women aren't having babies

March 1, 2024

New statistics show a record low number of children were born last year in South Korea, with women citing a desire for a career and to push back against a male-dominated society as key reasons.

A woman holding an umbrella crosses a road in central Seoul
South Korea's demographic crisis has become the top risk to economic growth and the nation's social welfare systemImage: Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

When she was younger, Hyobin Lee yearned to be a mother. There came a point, however, when she had to make a difficult decision. Ultimately, she chose her career over a family and is now a successful academic in the South Korean city of Daejeon.

Lee, now 44, is just one of millions of Korean women who are making a conscious decision to remain childless — resulting in the nation's fertility rate dropping to a new record low.

The fertility rate — the average number of births per woman — shrank to 0.72 last year, according to preliminary government statistics released on Wednesday, down from 0.78 in the previous year and continuing the gradual annual decline since 2015.

That figure is well below the 2.1 children required to maintain South Korea's population, with the mere 230,000 children born last year hinting that the nation's total population is on course to fall to around 26 million — half the current total — by 2100.

A dream of a son

"When I was young, I dreamed of having a son who looked like me," Lee told DW. "I wanted to play with him, to read together and show him much of the world. But I have come to realize that reality is not so simple."

"I chose not to have children because of my career," she said. "Having and raising a child would cause problem for my career and I fear I would resent the child for that reason. And as a consequence, both the child and I would be unhappy."

South Korea's birth rate hits record low

A successful career in Korea's male-dominated society is one reason that many women give for opting to remain childless, but there are many more, Lee points out.

"Economic issues play a significant role and despite various childbirth policies designed to support women, these measures are not functioning as intended," she said.

Parental leave, for example, is by law available for both men and women, but it is overwhelmingly perceived and utilized by women.

Just 1.3% of Korean men use their parental leave entitlement, compared to an average of 43.4% across the 38 states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD).

This means that Korean companies are reluctant to hire young women as they fear that they will invest in training a new member of staff only for her to leave after she become pregnant and then focus on being a full-time mother rather than returning to the workforce.

"In Korea, there is still a prevalent culture that believes bearing children and all aspects of childcare are solely the responsibility of women," Lee added. "The challenge of simultaneously managing childbirth and childcare is so daunting that many women choose not to have children at all. This can be said for me as well."

Jungmin Kwon, an associate professor at Portland State University in Oregon who specializes in East Asian popular culture, agrees that the pressures of South Korean society can be stifling.

"According to many studies, significant factors include the cost and effort involved in childcare," she said.

"Korea is famous for its extensive private education market and it is difficult to go against an atmosphere in which it is taken for granted that parents will spend a lot of money on various private education programs from a young age in order to compete with other children."

Women bear the brunt of children

"More importantly, in the current patriarchal culture, where women are expected to bear the majority of the mental and physical energy required to raise children, childbirth and childcare are challenging choices for women," Kwon said, pointing out that statistics show that women still do five times more housework and childcare duties than men.

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"In a situation where respect and consideration for women working across society have not yet taken root, managing both home and career smoothly is a challenging and stressful task for women."

And the consequence of that, she points out, is that as gender education levels become more equal and women have more economic resources and choices in their occupation than in the past, they are discovering many ways to live without relying on men.

"Many women do not want to constrain their lives by choosing not only not to have children, but also not to get married," Kwon said.

Aggressive efforts by recent South Korean governments to boost the birth rate — including additional benefits for families with multiple children and support for single-parent families — have clearly failed to turn the tide, Lee points out, and have had the unanticipated consequence of fueling resentment among men.

"They feel aggrieved that they have to complete mandatory military service and they argue that there is no equivalent obligation for women, yet women benefit from numerous supportive policies," she said.

It was this sector of the voting public that in part secured Yoon Suk Yeol's victory in the presidential election of May 2022 after he vowed during the campaign to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Bleak birthrate outlook

Both Lee and Kwon are pessimistic that South Korea's population crisis can be overcome, with Lee saying that young women appear to have no interest in responding to the nation's needs.

"There is a pervasive belief that issues of birth rates and social pressure are not their concern," she said. "The younger generation's prevalent individualism means that social pressures are unlikely to aid in improving birth rates."

Kwon echoes that assessment.

"Young women today have dissimilar perspectives about family, marriage, childbirth, community and the nation-state from previous generations.

"They are less entrapped by the ‘obligations of being a woman' imposed by patriarchal states, societies and households," she said.

"Currently it is not feasible for patriarchal structures to change overnight and, accordingly, it's also pessimistic to think that women will have children to increase Korea's birth rate."

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Edited by: Keith Walker

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