Back in the old days, Korean cinemas ran propaganda reels before playing a movie. A popular social campaign in those times was on birth control. “If you keep on having children, you will never get out of a beggar’s life,” was a typical message. South Korea had high birth rates in the early 1960s. Since the average family size was six, there were many families with eight or 10 offspring. Per capita income was a mere $60. It is not an exaggeration that many Koreans more or less starved.
When Gen. Park Chung Hee seized power, the first thing he did as president was to enforce family planning. The campaign was spearheaded by the Economic Planning Board. The deputy prime minister was the board head in charge of economic policy as well as budgeting. Nam Duck-woo was the deputy prime minister, and the vice minister of the planning board was the president’s nephew-by-marriage Chang Duk-chin.
Family planning policy was as fearless as its slogans. Every promotional means was used. A man who underwent sterilization surgery was exempted from compulsory reserved soldiers’ training and was even given priority to buy a new apartment. Among the reserved military quota, the number of men going in for vasectomies reached 80,000 from only 9,544 in 1974.
By 1976, over 7,000 planned motherhood organizations were formed in counties and cities across the nation. Over 750,000 women worked day and night to preach the merits of birth control and keep watch on women in their areas. The ministries of defense, health, and construction and local governments moved systematically under the orders of the deputy prime minister, who had power over budgeting.
That obsession continued through the next military regime under President Chun Doo Hwan. The Planning Board in 1981 together with the ministries of justice, finance, and health and society unveiled the centerpiece of Korea’s population control policy. A mother who gave birth to a third child was stripped of public health insurance benefits and slapped with a higher residence tax. Legal leave for births were only allowed for the first and second children. If a father got sterilized, two of his offspring received free hospital care until they turned five.
The results were miraculous. A total fertility rate of 2.83 in 1980 fell to 1.59 in 1990. All this was possible because the campaign was authorized by the president and led by the Planning Board.
But the world changed very quickly and by the time Korea was fully aware of the changes, it was too late to do much. By 2005, Korea’s fertility rate hit 1.08, the world’s lowest aside from the rates in Hong Kong and Macau. Stunned by the sudden reversal of fate, the government hurriedly formed a task force under the president to tackle the problem of low fertility and Korea’s rapidly aging society. It spent 150 trillion won ($132.3 billion) to address the specific problem over the following 10 years. The results, however, were negligible. The fertility rate remained as low at 1.21 as of last year. The side effects of our low birth rate started to become all too apparent.
Korea’s economically active population aged between 15 and 64 will start dwindling from next year. The number of people aged 65 and over will outnumber children aged 14 and under. By 2060, the number of economically active people and that of elderly and young children will become the same. We are back in the beggar’s life.
Yet the incumbent government doesn’t seem to mind. The presidential committee on low birth and aging society held its first meeting last month, two years after the president began her term. Their so-called measures were nothing new. The Ministry of Land and Transportation reduced benefits for multi-children households in September last year. The Ministry of Strategy and Finance, which heads economic policy, went a step further. Its revision of the tax code that ended up producing higher tax bills, triggering a public outcry at year-end, scrapped tax benefits for families with more than one child and eliminated deductions for births and adoptions. Instead of giving out rewards for having children, the government took them away.
The National Assembly was even more senseless. It shot down a bill to install surveillance cameras in day care centers across the nation after some video footage showed a day care center staffer smacking a toddler for not finishing a meal. Legislators feared losing votes from day care center owners more than caring for young children. You cannot blame Koreans for not having children in a country with such senseless lawmakers.
It is much more difficult to raise birth rates than to lower them. Parents can save money if they have fewer children, but they have to consider many more factors if they decide to have more. We need a more inventive policy than the birth control campaign in the 1970s and 1980s. A bigger budget is not the answer. The government needs to be creative.
How about reducing military service for sons of a large family? They could be exempted from reserve corps training. Families with more than three offspring should be given priority in apartment purchases and bigger tax deductions. Companies that set up day care centers at the workplace should be exempted from tax audits. Government offices that go against birth encouragement policies should face cuts in budgets. The health minister cannot propose such daring ideas. The president and the deputy prime minister must act. If left unattended, the country will could find itself in a beggar’s world due to a demographic crisis.
JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 16, Page 30
*The author is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Jung Kyung-min