Baby on boardYong Hye-in, a lawmaker of the Basic Income Party, reported to work with a two-month-old child. She paid respect to deputy house speaker Kim Sang-hee with her sleeping boy in a stroller and held a press conference holding the baby to call for the right to have a child accompany a lawmaker to the National Assembly. The bill calls for an infant less than one year that needs breastfeeding to be allowed in the parliament. “A woman in Korea is often alone in the burden of pregnancy, child birth and care, which is the primary cause of low fertility,” she said, calling for fairer child care system through government support.
Yong is the third lawmaker to give birth during legislative term. Although the sigh of a baby in the National Assembly was the first in Korea, the scene has already become commonplace overseas. Larissa Waters, co-deputy leader of Australia’s Green Party, made headlines in 2017 for breastfeeding her twomonth-old daughter during a parliamentary session. She was free to do so due to a new law that passed earlier, allowing children into the chambers. She claimed workplaces must be family-friendly so that breastfeeding in parliament should no longer make news. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who gave birth while in office took her three-month-old daughter to the United Nations Conference in New York in 2018.
It is time the Korean political scene also catches up with the changing times. Furthermore, actions must take place to address the issues Yong symbolically raised. Newborns stopped at 22,820 in April in the latest census report by the Statistics Office, the lowest since data was tracked from 1981. At this rate, the Korean population could be halved by 2100. A survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found 70 percent of those currently living alone have no wishes to change their status in the future. Half of those in their 20s wish to stay single. The public policy which has failed to improve the world’s lowest birth rate despite billions of dollars spent must be fixed. A study by the National Budget Office at the request of an opposition lawmaker found only 32.5 percent of this year’s budget of 42.9 trillion won ($38 billion) earmarked to promote birth this year went directly to support birth, childcare, and family welfare. The spending of 56 percent on housing, rent, and loans for young couples is understandable. But why millions of dollars went to fisheries and maritime projects, tourism and gaming is baffling.
The low birth rate coupled with aging spell doom for the country. Presidential aspirants must vie with policy ideas to address the issue. The young are lured into the capital region in search of better jobs and living conditions. Other parts of the country must be able to provide equally decent jobs and living standards. The young who are used to comforts of modern life fear they cannot provide the same security to their offspring and shun starting a family. Retirement extension coupled with employment flexibility, housing security and education reform are also necessary steps to stimulate the birth rate.