[Outlook]A ticking time bomb

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[Outlook]A ticking time bomb

Our nation now faces a serious economic slowdown spawned by the financial crisis, and North Korea’s nuclear program is shaking up our national security fundamentals.

But just as serious is the fact that Korean society is aging fast, and has a shockingly low birth rate. For some reason, however, this problem is being treated as if it doesn’t need to be tackled immediately. Korea’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world, but we are lacking a sense of urgency about the issue.

According to the State of World Population 2008 report released by the United Nations Population Fund, the fertility rate [the measure indicating the number of children a woman would have during her reproductive years, from age 15 to 49] in Korea is 1.20, second to last among 156 countries. Hong Kong, a part of China, is the only place where the fertility rate is lower, at 0.96.

If we don’t draw up emergency measures to tackle this problem, the destiny of our country could change abruptly and completely. Even effective measures that encourage people to have kids won’t produce results overnight because of the natural progression of population growth.

Consequences are always more serious when no system has been put in place. The low birth-fertility rate issue is a matter of grave importance, and the country must take it just as seriously as the economic crisis or North Korea’s nukes.

If the this trend persists for an extended period, it is difficult to estimate the shocks our society will be subjected to. There will be negative impact in nearly every sector, from politics and economics to culture. Korea’s population will start to drop significantly within 10 years, damaging national power. Once a country’s population goes down, it is very difficult to make it go back up again. One of the reasons why the Roman Empire fell was that the nobility indulged in lives of luxury and avoided making babies, reducing the population as a result.

The time, energy and economic burden involved in raising and educating children are the most common reasons why many don’t want to have kids. As such, our first and foremost task is to reform the education system to make it less costly but more effective. The total expenditure on private tutoring recently exceeded 20 percent of the average family monthly income, adding up to a total of 20 trillion won ($13.5 billion).

It is extremely expensive to get a child into a good university. In Korea, more than 80 percent of high school graduates go on to university, one of the highest rates in the world. It is a serious waste for individuals and the country as a whole to produce so many college students, particularly when they go to university just to save face for themselves and their parents. With education so expensive, it is difficult to expect the birth rate to go up. Without resolving the problems in this sector, other measures to encourage families to have children are unlikely to work.

Not all jobs require higher education. The government must categorize all jobs, find out the number of positions for each level of education and restructure the education system accordingly. The government must come up with a policy that provides incentives to those who don’t go to university so they don’t face disadvantages. If the numbers who go to college without a specific reason or goal is reduced, the costs of private instruction will naturally fall. Changing the basics of the system will create an atmosphere in which people will want to have babies, although it will take time to achieve it.

The government also must regard the low birth rate as seriously as it does national security, and increase the budget to encourage families to reproduce. France used to be synonymous with low birth rates, but since the 1990s the country has set encouraging baby making as a national task and provided all kinds of support to families with children. Germany also takes the stance that the people give birth, but the country raises them. In that country, the central and local governments cover nearly all the costs of raising and educating children by providing subsidies for kids and parents. It is difficult for us to do the same things that advanced welfare states like France and Germany do. But we should present similar measures to avoid even larger social costs. We shouldn’t delay in creating a corporate culture where people can give birth and raise children without difficulty. A time bomb may not explode immediately, but that doesn’t make it safe.

*The writer is a deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Han Kyung-hwan
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