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Dwindling population

S.Korea to report first-ever population drop in 2021

The country's total population to trend downward from this year, eight years ahead of the projected timeline

By Dec 09, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

S.Korea to report first-ever population drop in 2021

South Korea's total population in 2021 is set to decline for the first time since the country began collecting census data, hit by a sharp fall in birth rates and immigration since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The population in Asia's fourth-largest economy, including foreign students and workers, is estimated to shrink by 0.18% on-year to 51.7 million at the end of 2021, according to Statistics Korea on Thursday. 

That is eight years ahead of the timeline projected two years ago by the statistics office for the country's total population to begin a downward trend.

Last year, South Korea reported its first-ever natural population decline, with the number of deaths outstripping that of births. Including the inflow of immigrants, however, the country's total population expanded by 0.14% in 2020. 

The number of immigrants dropped by 63,000 this year, versus last year's decline of 58,000. 

This year, the number of expected babies per South Korean woman is poised to drop to the lowest level of 0.82, versus the previous record low of 0.84 recorded in 2020, which was also the world’s lowest for the year. In 2021, the number of babies born is forecast at 261,000, compared with last year's 275,000.

That means the government's 380 trillion won ($323 billion) spending over the past 15 years on programs aimed at lifting the birth rate failed to reverse the decline.

TO RETURN TO LEVELS OF NEARLY A CENTURY PRIOR

Starting from last year, the country's total population is expected to shrink by an annual average of 60,000, which projects the number in 2070 at 37.7 million, similar to the population in 1979.

During the period, the working-age population, or those aged between 15 and 64, will likely decline by 3.6 million in total, equivalent to the current population of Busan, South Korea's second-largest city. 

Year Estimated Population Working-age Population (%) Median Age
2020 51,836,000 72.1% 43.7
2030 51,199,000 N/A N/A
2070 37,656,000 46.1% 62.2
Source: Statistics Korea

The shrinking population is set to trap the South Korean economy into a vicious circle of falling consumption, investment and employment, undermining its growth potential.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has projected South Korea's gross domestic product growth to slow to 1.9% per year between 2020 and 2030, compared with 2.8% between 2007 and 2020.

Write to Jin-gyu Kang at josep@hankyung.com

Yeonhee Kim edited this article.
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