[EDITORIALS]Population Problems Lie AheadKorea's population structure is changing rapidly. Koreans over the age of 65 reached 7 percent of the nation's total population last year, thus meeting the UN's definition of an "aging society." Birth rates have been sharply declining, and current population policies have to change. Korea's birth rate has dropped from 2.1 births per woman in 1983 to 1.8 in 1996 and 1.42 in 1999. If the trends continue, the population will stop growing in 2020, earlier than the earlier forecast of 2028. Reforms must come quickly.
The government adopted a so-called "new population policy" in 1996, ending its 30-year-old policy of limiting the number of children to two per household. But it did not provide new measures to meet the needs of an era of low birth rates.
A decline in birth rates always brings out social problems such as a shrinking work force, but several types of plans could address those problems. As more capital-intensive industry develops, more older persons can stay in the work force; if inter-Korean relations improve, South Korea can absorb the North Korean work force, just as the two Germanies did. But a growing proportion of senior citizens could make welfare costs balloon and shrink the economy's energy, resulting in slower growth. Korea's decline in birth rates is also so far advanced that some experts are afraid it is too late to reverse the drop.
A population policy takes effect in the long run, so when a problem becomes serious, it is already too late to deal with it effectively. The decline in birth rates is a result of more women in the work force and a disinclination to marry young, so the government should speed plans to address those phenomena. It is fortunate that the government has taken some measures, although they are incomplete, such as the lengthening of maternity leaves. In addition, the government should discourage abortions, which reach 200,000 a year, to keep birth rates up.
Finally, the government should not neglect reform of the social insurance and education systems, which are closely related to changes in population structure.