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Dwindling population

S.Korea’s birth rate decline accelerates to world’s lowest

Feb 25, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

S.Korea’s birth rate decline accelerates to world’s lowest 
The average birth rate in South Korea dropped to a fresh low of 0.84 last year, the world’s lowest, which population experts said will unlikely bounce back without an increase in decent jobs and affordable housing for young adults.

The 2020 number compared with 0.92 recorded a year earlier, meaning since 2018 the average South Korean woman gives birth to fewer than one child during her lifetime, Statistics Korea said on Feb. 24. The tally marked the lowest since the country began compiling the data.

South Korea’s total fertility rate has been declining the fastest among the 198 member countries of the United Nations. With a population of slightly over 50 million including immigrants, it is the only country with an average birth rate below one.

Its birth rate is less than half the average global fertility rate of 2.4 in 2020. In comparison, Puerto Rico’s birth rate, ranking second from the bottom in terms of fertility rate, is 1.2 on average.

Graphics by Jerry Lee
Graphics by Jerry Lee
Making things worse, the pace of the fertility rate drop is even faster than government projections. That signals the world’s 12th-largest economy will become one of a few superaged countries earlier than expected, when those aged over 65 will account for one-fifth of the country’s population.

Accordingly, the country’s total population is expected to shrink in the next few years, earlier than the projected 2029, which should dampen private consumption and raise deflationary pressure, or pulling down prices for goods and services.

Last year, the number of births declined to a record low of 272,000 in South Korea, versus the previous year’s 303,000. The 2020 tally fell short of the 292,000 projected by the government’s statistics agency in 2019.

The number of babies born a year had stayed in the 400,000 range between 2002 and 2016 in the country. Since tumbling to 358,000 in 2017, the number declined to the 200,000 range in just three years.

Cho Young-tae, a professor of Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Health, attributed the declining birth rate to “a combination of the lack of decent jobs, a housing shortage and a concentration of population and industries in the Seoul metropolitan area.” He called for comprehensive government measures to overhaul the structure of both the economy and society.   

DEATHS EXCEED BIRTHS FOR FIRST TIME

In comparison, the number of deaths reached 305,000 last year, exceeding the number of births by 33,000. It was the first time that deaths outnumbered births for the country.

South Korea has reported net growth in immigrants by more than 50,000 per year. But immigrant workers are unlikely to solve the declining population problem caused by the rapid pace of the birth rate fall.

The number of marriages, a predictor of the birth rate, dropped sharply as well. Last year, 214,000 couples tied the knot, down 10.7% year-on-year, blamed in part on the global pandemic. The decline in the number of marriages accelerated, compared with 7.2% in 2019.

The core working age group, or those aged between 25 and 49, was estimated to make up 36.9% of the South Korean population last year, similar to Japan’s 36.3% level in 1990.

Statistics Korea had projected the ratio of the economically active population to decrease to 32.5% by 2030. But at the current birth rate, the working age group could dwindle at a faster pace. Those over 65 will likely surpass 20% of the country’s population before the projected year of 2025, joining the ranks of the superaged society.

Japan’s prolonged recession since the 1990s, or the so-called lost 20 years, was attributable to the aging population and fewer young entrepreneurs, which James Liang, co-founder and executive chairman of Trip.com Group said resulted in the failure for Japan to introduce innovative products like its earlier Walkman and digital cameras.

The South Korean government had poured 305 trillion won ($275 million) into programs aimed at lifting the birth rate between 2006 and 2020, including child allowances paid to preschoolers. But population experts said the monthly benefit payment of 100,000 won for each preschooler since 2018 will not address the fundamental problems of the fertility rate decrease, adding: "Are you going to give birth to a baby only to get 100,000 won ($90) per month?” 

Some of the experts call for pro-immigration policies to attract young people, in particular talented workers, to boost economic productivity, given the difficulty of sharply raising the birth rate in the near term.

Write to Min-Jun Suh at morandol@hankyung.com

Yeonhee Kim edited this article.

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