South Korea: Hyper-Competitive and Childless

3 March 2024

South Korea: Hyper-Competitive and Childless

By Gwynne Dyer

There are enough people to go around: eight billion now, compared to two billion less than a hundred years ago. Fifty-one million in South Korea, compared to only twelve million a hundred years ago. So why are South Koreans obsessed about their low birth rate?

It is certainly very low now. The average number of children a South Korean woman will have in her lifetime is just 0.72, whereas the birth rate needs to be at least 2.1 children per woman to prevent the population from falling.

Lots of developed countries have low birth rates nowadays, especially in East Asia – Japan is 1.3 children per woman, China is 1.2 – but no other country is below 1.0. South Korea is not just leading the parade. It is so far out in front that it is almost out of sight.

The national anxiety about this is so great that South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol has finally said the unsayable. His country’s citizens are “excessively and unnecessarily competitive,” he admitted – and that is why it has the world’s lowest birth-rate.

The steadily declining birth rate has been perceived as a ‘problem’ for almost two decades now, and various governments have thrown an estimated $286 billion at it with no effect whatever.

All sorts of incentives have been tried: subsidised housing, free taxis and even direct monthly cash payments for couples who have children. Married men are exempt from military service if they have three children before turning 30; mothers can hire nannies from South East Asia and pay them below minimum wage.

Nothing worked, and the birth rate is still falling fast. At the current rate of decline, it will be down to 0.5 in just five more years, at which point the country will only be replacing one-quarter of its present population. What is driving this extraordinary collapse?

We know that it is not some peculiarity of Korean culture in general, because there is a control for this particular experiment: North Korea, which beneath a thin veneer of Communist ideology is a traditional Korean dynastic state. And the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (to give its full name) has a birth rate of 1.8 children per completed family.

Whatever it is, it’s specific to South Korea – and what stands out is the sheer speed with which South Korea became a fully modern democratic society. It was still a dictatorship thirty years ago. It was still a very poor and poorly educated country fifty years ago. It was a war-torn wreck seventy years ago, and a downtrodden Japanese colony eighty years ago.

Now it is in the same income bracket as Canada, France and Japan, but it made that transition three times faster than Japan did and social attitudes don’t change that fast. Even in Japan women face many challenges at work, but in South Korea they are virtually insurmountable.

Three quarters of South Korean women have a post-secondary education, but they are expected to leave work for at least two years after having a child. Even after that they face obstacles in getting back into the workforce at the same level – yet South Korea is the most expensive country in the world to raise a child, and one income is not enough.

The whole set-up is Japan squared: intense competition from the cradle onwards. Many Japanese parents hire tutors for their children or pay for extra-curricular classes and courses; all but two percent of South Korean parents do so. Add needlessly long working hours and very high housing costs, and many women decide that having a child is just impossible.

President Yoon Suk Yeol has diagnosed the problem, but it’s the kind of problem that would take at least a generation to solve. If South Korea took fifty years to fall into this trap, it will probably take at least that long to get out of it – and in fifty years, at this rate, the population will have shrunk by half.

There’s nothing wrong with having a smaller population in principle: nobody felt the country was empty in 1960, when the population (25 million) was half what it is now. The difficulty is going back down to a much smaller population very fast, because that turns the normal ‘population pyramid’ upside-down.

By 2075, the number of South Koreans of working age will have halved, and almost half the population will be over 65 and relying on that greatly shrunken workforce to support them. This is not a viable outcome.

The time to start putting a much higher value on women’s happiness and well-being is now, but it might also be a good idea to start encouraging mass immigration from countries with higher birth rates.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“The steadily…whatever”; and “We know…family”)