Bold idea for Korea’s fertility woes

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Bold idea for Korea’s fertility woes

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A report from a state-run think tank said yesterday that an open attitude toward extramarital pregnancies and unmarried couples living together might be necessary to overcome Korea’s chronically low birthrate.

Citing Europe’s comparatively high birthrate as an example, the report advocated a change to more “accepting” social values about marriage and child-rearing.

The potentially controversial suggestion arises from the fact that existing government policies to boost Korea’s lagging birthrate haven’t had much effect.

Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world and the most rapidly aging population among OECD countries, which is considered a serious threat to economic growth.

A solution has long been sought for Korea’s low birthrate problem, and a report released by the state-run Korea Development Institute yesterday made the case for easing social taboos about extramarital pregnancies.

The report by KDI research fellow Kim Young-chul cited statistics from European nations. Although women’s active participation in the workforce has been associated with late marriages and lower birthrates, Kim found that wasn’t the case in some western and northern European nations.

The reason was a high percentage of births outside of marriage, he writes. In those countries, children born outside of marriages account for between 40 to 60 percent of total births, and total fertility rates remained above 1.6 babies per woman.

The total fertility rate measures the average number of children a woman is expected to bear between 15 and 49 years of age. A rate of 1.3 babies per woman or lower is considered extremely low.

Korea had a total fertility rate of 1.23 babies per woman, the report said, citing the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s 2011 World Factbook. Korea ranked 217th out of a total of 222 countries in terms of its fertility rate.

Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan have even lower birthrates than Korea.

“For major European nations, the increase of educated, working women pushed back the age of marriage as it did for developed Asian economies, but late marriages did not directly lead to lower birthrates due to the fundamental change in the partnership between the sexes,” Kim wrote.

“Unlike in the West, Asian cultures consider marriage a prerequisite for childbirth,” Kim added. “So the growing trend of marrying late or not marrying at all is casting a dark shadow over any future recovery of a higher birthrate.”

The ratio of Korean single women between the ages of 35 to 39 increased from 4.3 percent in 2000 to 12.6 percent in 2010.

Some European nations having overcome low birthrates partly by providing legal safeguards for children born out of wedlock.

But opinion is divided on whether such a free attitude can be cultivated in Korea’s comparatively conservative culture.


By Lee Jung-yoon [joyce@joongang.co.kr]

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