[Column] Averting a demographic cliff for Korea

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[Column] Averting a demographic cliff for Korea

Lee Eun-kyung
The author is a senior attorney at law firm Sanji.

Korea’s population problem has attracted global attention. The total fertility rate, which refers to the total number of children that would be born to each woman, dropped below 0.7 and further dives each year. As the number of fertile women decreased sharply, population experts say the country has lost a proper timing to turn the tide. But we cannot sit on our hands anymore. The government must recognize the issue as a top national agenda and tackle the challenge as it could be a major source of all social conflicts the country undergoes.

Young men and women in Korea are increasingly turning away from marriage and having children. A new survey shows only 17.6 percent of Koreans in favor of marriage, not to mention an ever-deepening gender conflict. The time has come for the government to find effective ways to change the young generation’s attitudes toward marriage instead of using policy means to avert a demographic cliff. Above all, the government must relieve them of their obsessive fear about the burden for child-raising. The underlying cause of the demographic crisis — negative perception about their future — translates into a critical lack of leadership to present national visions.

The three keywords to address demographic challenges are family, women and immigrants — a complicated issue involving sharp conflicts over generations, genders and blood. Despite complexities of the issue, the government — and members of our society — must talk about them rather than shunning them. The government in particular must demonstrate the will to resolve those social conflicts squarely instead of simply finding financial solutions that require an astronomical amount of taxpayers’ money. It must draw up efficient demographic policies based on clear national visions.

Families have degenerated into households — a loosely-knit economic unit — in the absence of their conventional solidarity. Traditional family culture has long been tabooed as it is allegedly a source of generational conflict, and family members only talk about education and wealth today. Due to the image of parents as grumpy old men, their wisdom from experiences has become a laughing stock for their children. Such a collapse of family system only helps people take a step closer to the demographic cliff. Worse, a government preaching the values of departing with the normal concept of family — and the following legislation — accelerated the disintegration of family. Despite their original good intentions, such policies backfired.

The liberal Moon Jae-in administration claimed that the traditional family concept — marriage is a must and a married couple should give birth to at least two children — only leads to discriminations and biases. The government submitted a revision to the Basic Act on Healthy Family to remove various clauses aimed at encouraging marriage and births, preventing family dissolution, and restoring healthy families, while criticizing those who expressed concerns about the possibility of the revision only helping the young avoid marriage further and worsening our already low birthrates. Some officials went so far as to assert that marriage is just a matter of choice and women don’t have to give birth to babies.

The progressive administration gave preferential treatment to single-person households to end discriminations between the married and unmarried, not to mention transferring family responsibilities to the state one after another. It even attempted to change the definition of family by revising the Civil Law. It also preached that giving birth to children is just one of diverse choices for life. That provoked strong resistance from parents against such radical education policy under the Moon administration. As a result, existing policies aimed to encourage marriage and reproduction could not but go adrift. The uninterrupted decline of fertility rate from 2015 and 2022 is related to such a drastic policy shift.

In particular, the government ignored that women hold the key to addressing the demographic crisis. Women in Korea must tackle the challenges of providing labor for the economy and giving birth to children at the same time. That is not an easy job. But political circles only exacerbate our demographic problem by exploiting the gender conflict for more votes instead of helping change women’s attitude toward childbearing.

The demographic challenge also comes from public animosity against immigrants. The Yoon Suk Yeol administration must seriously overcome the narrow-minded shunning of foreigners and consider a drastic opening of the door to immigration for those who share the same values as ours to help ensure the sustainability of the country. It must devise multi-ethnic and multicultural policies to help immigrants settle here and contribute to the development of our society.

I look forward to seeing a dynamic DNA deeply embedded in Koreans prevent an upcoming population crisis.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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