Korea’s greatest threat
Koreans are scratching their heads, asking themselves why efforts to address Korea’s dwindling birthrate have been so ineffective.
Although the government has implemented over 100 different policies since 2006 and has allocated a budget of 10 trillion won ($9.3 billion) for the last two years, the number of annual births per 1,000 members of the population is stuck at 1.19. That ranks Korea at No. 220 among nations for its birthrate in 2014. No other major country is even close to that rate.
The reason for the complete failure is simple. Koreans have completely failed to recognize the seriousness of the crisis and have not responded with an appropriate level of commitment in terms of policy or, more importantly, a shift in habits.
A birth rate like this could mean Korea itself will disappear as a culture in 100 years. The Korean language could join Manchu as a dead language that people learn about in history books.
It strikes me as bizarre that Koreans talk about the highly unlikely possibility of North Korea shelling Seoul, but they avoid this far more serious danger completely. Such a low birthrate is certainly a far greater threat than a lack of competitiveness in semiconductors or smartphones.
This crisis is, above all, a failure to address the needs of women in Korea. Korea presents a modern facade to the world and itself, but it has not taken the simple steps to assure that women can raise children. Because the low birthrate is related to problems in Korean society that most men are not interested in discussing, we go around pretending this crisis is not a massive priority.
But the sad truth is that although investment in making it easier to raise children and work, in ensuring an excellent education is free for everyone, should be Korea’s top priority, we have not even started to take the crisis seriously.
Just take a look at the workplace in Korea. We see hard-working women who are responsible for creating the Korean miracle doing their best as their male bosses sit behind their desks reading the newspaper. Those women cannot bring their children to work and they must spend many hours trying to feed and educate them on top of their work at the company. It is not a mystery why the birthrate has fallen.
All companies, research institutes, universities and government offices must maintain day care facilities on location where female employees can drop off their children and then can visit them during the day.
The primary concern in designing a workplace, or designing a city, should be making it possible for women to bring their children to work or wherever they go.
Such a shift may sound expensive, but in fact it is rather cheap compared with the costs of ignoring this demographic time bomb. We need to see a massive shift in priorities before we will see any improvement in the birth rate.
Quality schools should be free for Korean children, and those schools should provide all activities, from kindergarten through high school, so that there will no financial burden for training outside of school. For the next generation, until Korea returns to a replacement rate of two children per family, parents should not have to think about the costs of education when deciding how many children to have.
It should be not only possible, but even attractive, for women to pursue a career seriously and raise two or three children. To say that such a policy is not economically viable, as businessmen have told me over dinner while the women at their office were still at work, is simply a misunderstanding.
All you need to do is just stop the spending on drinking, on drivers for CEOs, on flying first class (or flying at all), on new construction of offices. We must do whatever it takes to make it possible for women to raise children and for those children to prosper.
Women who have children, or plan to have children, should be given priority in hiring and promotion. Moreover, women should be given credit for their work raising children that will help them in their promotion in the company.
And what if Korea’s competitiveness should slip because more people spend time raising their children? The answer is simple. Without a future, Korea does not have to worry about competitiveness. Anyone who thinks that spending on childcare and education is too expensive has simply not calculated the costs of the current trends for the next 20 or 30 years.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.
by Emanuel Pastreich