A 2014 study commissioned by the National Assembly concluded that South Koreans could face natural extinction by 2750 if its birthrate remains unchanged at the current 1.19 children per woman, quoting the U.S. Brookings Institution.
It is a small surprise then the government has come up with various measures, including maternity benefits and free childcare, to jack up the almost lowest fertility rate in the world to little avail.
|Professor Cho Young-tae of Seoul National University speaks abourt the ways of raising Korea’s notoriously low birthrate during a recent lecture.|
As one of the nation’s most famous demographic experts see it, however, Seoul should start at the stage preceding child-bearing—marriage.
“With the young generation’s prospects becoming unclear because of sagging economy and scarcer job openings, they don’t even think about marriage, let alone child-bearing,” said Professor Cho Young-tae of Seoul National University in an interview with The Korea Biomedical Review on Monday.
“And so it’s not just four years but 10 years that Korea has lost under former President Park Geun-hye,” he said.
Professor Cho is one of the few scholars to specialize in demography in Korea. With more than 33 academic journals and publications under his belt since 2001 -- including his recent book “The Future of the Future” that explains about changes brought about by the population dynamics today -- Cho said he would like to make some suggestions to policymakers, particularly those in the next administration.
“The new president, whoever he/she will be, should start to plan for the future of this country. We have to make our next generation’s life paths different from ours, and this includes changing the entire educational system,” he said.
Cho then cited the example of how extensive damage a shortsighted policy could inflict on the nation’s future:
When the Korean government started family planning programs to curb population growth in the early 1960s, the fertility rate -- the number of births one woman would have -- was six. In the 1970s, it started to decline to three, and in the 1980s it fell to two. In the 1990s, it became 1.6, and that’s when the government stopped the programs. Last year the number was 1.17.
“The government should have stopped family planning in the 1980s where the replacement level was 2.08: a couple should have two babies so that the population size could be replaced,” Cho said. “But family planning continued with no questions whether they should stop. It did end in 1996, but by then it was too late.”
The reason Cho called for focusing more on marriage is that matrimony is a must to carry children, particularly in Korea’s cultural stereotypes. If a marriage is postponed, then so does child-bearing, which leads to low fertility rate. With Korean women pushing their marriage and their first babies in their 30s, the chances of having a second child are slim.
Asked to compare with cases in other countries and how they dealt with low birthrate, Cho pointed to Japan, stating that the country is 15-20 years ahead of Korea in demographic trends and began to experience low fertility problems far ahead of Korea.
“When Shinzō Abe became the Japanese prime minister, he announced he would make Japan strong again, politically, diplomatically and most importantly, economically. His economic policy was to drive more companies to make the investment and to lend more money to them to expand the job market,” Cho said. In short, the ‘Abenomics’ of economic revival is the biggest contributor.”
Abenomics has improved the Japanese economy, based on which Japan plans to implement steps to raise its birthrate, such as easier access to childcare and tax incentives, the SNU professor said.
Cho cited his children’s case as the example to change the young generation’s future, saying he enrolled his first daughter to an agricultural high school.
“If she goes into the farming business, she will be one of the very few young people to enter into the sector. Once she graduates high school, the government can give her some land to help practice what she learned at school,” Cho said. “This path is much better than going through the competitive college-entrance exam because, with her valued experience, universities can quickly offer her a scholarship.”
Korea’s middle and high school students rely heavily on private education, costing parents thousands of dollars every month. The dependence on private education is so prevalent that the public education system encourages and pressures parents to spend enormous amounts of money.
But why do Korean citizens pay tax for the public education system when they don’t even properly teach? Cho asks back.
“Private education aggravates competition among students to enter colleges. If you fail, you have to wait another year to retake the exam,” Cho said. “Once you get into a university, you have to compete again with 80 percent of your generation for good grades. It’s a repetitive circle that we must break.”
“If the government does not want the current generation to end up with the same fertility rate with that of the 1980s generation, it has to tackle the public education system and focus more on helping young people get married first,” Cho said in conclusion.
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