Pointing a finger at Korean women

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Pointing a finger at Korean women

By 2750, Korea will be extinct.

No, I’m not making this up. If the birth rate stays as low as the current 1.19, Korea’s population will die out by 2750.

This simple and not-so-inspiring statistic was included in a press release by a National Assembly member, and it became quite a hit. Domestic media had a field day, and even the Wall Street Journal’s news blog wrote a story about it.

For my part, I was left bitter. How can I not be? That very press release is pointing a finger at me. As a Korean woman, I am apparently the one to blame, turning a blind eye to giving birth, which is considered by many here to be a holy duty.

I am the reason behind the fear that Korea may be wiped off the Earth in 736 years. But I can’t help but wonder: If we are that worried about the low birth rate, don’t we have to do something about it through action, rather than wasting time and energy in making a fuss?

But I guess I should be silent. I am presumably the guilty one here. I’m not entitled to complain, as Koreans often say, because the guilty should stay silent.

But rather, I choose to be honest. I am afraid. I get cold feet whenever I picture myself being a mother. I don’t have a single iota of intention to quit my job. I love what I am. And I am selfish, afraid of making a compromise.

I used to run into a woman who appeared to be my age on her way to take her little one to a nursery before going to work. Her baby was often crying, and her satin blouse, which was not very neatly ironed, would be wet. Not just from the tears of the baby but also from the water dripping from her hair. She could barely find the time to wash her hair, much less dry it. And her bag was heavy with work-related documents. But in that moment, she shined bright, like a bigger saint than Mother Teresa.

The JoongAng Ilbo, this newspaper’s Korean-language sister publication, runs a series of columns penned by reporters who are working mothers. And I get chills down on my spine whenever I read their confessions. Their mornings and evenings are literally a battle. It’s an adventure for them to go to work in the morning, leaving behind a crying baby.

If they are lucky, they have family members - mostly their own mothers - to look after their babies or have to pay a lump sum for baby-sitters who demand to go home by 8 p.m. A dinner with your sources? No way. Movies? What a luxury. But they go on, and I would call it a miracle - or, more precisely, a nightmare.

I would rather make the excuse that I do not dare have a baby. But I know I want to be a mother someday, though not necessarily now.

I often think of a line from a 2005 Japanese TV series, “Women on the Crossroads.” It remains in my heart even after almost a decade: “No women will give birth because they are afraid of Japan being lost on Earth. A woman becomes a mother because she is destined and blessed to meet her own child.”

Korean women, myself included, are supposedly on a birth strike. We don’t make a fuss, we just choose to stay silent and not give birth. We have this fear, and we know that society is not ready.

Plus, we are living in a country that has the second-longest working hours among nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It’s more of a burden than blessing now to have a baby. We know how demanding it is to be a full-time mother. There is this strong sense of guilt here.

But maybe it’s too much to ask to stop pointing fingers at women and work together to build a society that is friendly to both working mothers and - for true gender equality - fathers.

*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo reporter and former Korea JoongAng Daily reporter.

by Chun Su-jin
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