Experts weigh in on push to raise fertility rate

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Experts weigh in on push to raise fertility rate

The government and the ruling Saenuri Party focused their attention Friday on the need to create more jobs for young people and encourage workplaces to offer a more conducive environment for child-rearing.

With more young people delaying or passing on marriage and childbirth due to costly housing expenses, unstable employment and other unfavorable societal conditions, experts say that a government plan to address the country’s low fertility rate amid an aging population is now more urgent than ever.

“The low birthrate threatens the existence of this country, so overcoming this is the most concerning agenda item for Korea,” the Saenuri Party’s chief policymaker, Kim Jung-hoon, said during the first meeting of a committee designed to respond to the country’s low fertility rate. “We need to adopt a policy that can be put into action to address the key reasons why childbirth is decreasing, including the reality in which actual policy and the maternity leave system play out separately.”

Four-term lawmaker Lee Ju-young, the committee chair; Minister of Health and Welfare Chung Chin-youb; Minister of Gender Equality and Family Kim Hee-jung; and lawmakers on the parliamentary Health and Welfare Committee also participated in the meeting held at the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul.

The group will hold regular meetings until March to draw up a plan to bolster fertility in Korea and will discuss youth unemployment, housing problems and the delay in marriage as the country prepares to implement its third five-year plan to boost the birthrate.

It will also tackle a leave system for fertility treatments, a measure to prohibit employers from discriminating based on family situation and expanding child care and education support.

In 2006, Korea launched a program to bolster the national fertility rate, which included three five-year plans. The second fertility plan runs from 2011 to this year, and the third plan runs from 2016 to 2020.

Currently, the country has one of the lowest fertility rates, at 1.2, out of all the nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The rate refers to the number of children born to a woman throughout her lifetime.

“As the third plan to deal with the low birthrate and an aging society progresses, we look forward to the fertility rate increasing to 1.5 by 2020,” the health minister said.

Gender Equality Minister Kim emphasized that starting from 2017, the government and public institutions will be required to adopt a family-friendly system, which will need to include providing incentives and benefits to companies that enforce a workplace environment in which family and child-rearing are given priority.

The situation now is in stark contrast to 50 years ago, when rapid population growth was seen as a problem. Korea had a fertility rate of 6 children per woman, and the population was increasing by 2.88 percent each year, leading the world.

Family planning was a national priority in 1963, when President Park Chung Hee emphasized that “to end the vicious cycle of poverty, it is important to decrease the rate of population growth.”

Between Dec. 1 and 15, the JoongAng Ilbo conducted a survey of 110 experts on population growth who weighed in on possible ways to boost the country’s birth and marriage rates.

Many recommended more extreme measures, which included the president being more hands-on.

The experts surveyed gave the Park Geun-hye government’s low birthrate policy a rating of 41.8 out of 100 points - even lower than the score given to the Lee Myung-bak administration, at 43.4.

Of those polled, 56.4 percent said that in order to increase the effectiveness of the policy, the president’s term in office needed to align with the time frame of the plan to address the low fertility rate and an aging population.

The Park Geun-hye administration launched in February 2012 for a term that ends in February 2018, which means her government will terminate between the second and third five-year birthrate plans.

The experts proposed that the fertility policy be aligned with the presidential terms to make it a major campaign pledge. They also called for measures aimed at boosting the birthrate to be regarded as a priority when evaluating Cabinet ministers.

“In the current political situation, political decisions are made prioritizing policies related to the economy,” said Byun Yang-kyu, a researcher with the Korea Economic Research Institute. “A birthrate policy has to be made a presidential campaign pledge to earn the support of the people, and then [the president] has to use that as a foundation to push through with the policy.”

However, Kim Won-shik, an economics professor at Konkuk University, disagreed.

“The low birthrate issue is an emergency situation that puts the existence of our country at stake. Matching the president’s term with the plan to tackle the birthrate and an aging society plan could just lead to unrealistic measures [being implemented].”

Hiroya Masuda, a former Japanese minister of internal affairs who heads private think tank Japan Policy Council, elaborated more on the economic risks.

“When the population shrinks, taxpayers and consumers shrink and the country’s presence in the international community weakens,” he said. “The population is the country, and its leader’s most important problem.”

“Korea has to hurry up and adopt a policy for its low fertility rate and carry it through long term,” Masuda said. “According to the Japan Policy Council, every five years that Japan delays improving its fertility rate, a future population of three million people will decrease.

“If a policy is not implemented soon, it undermines the efficacy of future policies.”

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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