SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Last year South Korea’s total population decreased for the first time since it began taking census data in 1949. The total population is the total number of people who live on the South Korean land, including foreigners.
According to the 2021 Census by Statistics Korea last Thursday (July 27), the country’s total population as of Nov 1, 2021 was 51.73 million, down 91,000 from a year earlier. The number of deaths began to outpace that of childbirths in November 2020, and to make matters worse, even the number of foreigners residing in Korea decreased in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This trend is likely to continue for a considerable period of time. Last December the statistics agency estimated the country’s total population would fall to 47.36 million in 2050, 42.62 million in 2060 and 37.66 million in 2070.
A shrinking population has a destructive influence upon almost all fields of a country including politics, economy, society, welfare, national defence and culture. Above all, a steady economic growth will be practically impossible. The latest census confirmed the seriousness of this problem.
The working-age population, or people aged 15 to 64, declined by 344,000 in a year, while the elderly population aged 65 or over increased by 419,000. This means people who work or will work fell in number but the people whom they will have to support increased.
South Korea’s total fertility rate was 0.81 last year, but the figure is expected to fall further to 0.7 this year and 0.6 next year. The average number of babies that would be born to a woman over her lifetime should be 2.1 to maintain the current population.
South Korea was the only country with a total fertility rate below 1 per cent among 38 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The country also has the fastest ageing population in the OECD. It is widely expected to become a super-aged society in 2025, in which the proportion of those aged 65 and older will hit 20 per cent of the total.
Korea does not have much time. The government has so far taken numerous population-boosting measures for 17 years since 2005 when it pushed through related laws and set up a presidential committee, but it would not be wrong to say all of them got nowhere.
Childbirths must increase in order to prevent adverse effects of ageing, such as the loss of economic vigour and an increase in social security expenses. The government updated blueprints on the low birthrate and ageing every five years from 2006 and poured a total of 380 trillion won (S$401 billion) for 15 years so far, but the birthrate has kept falling.
It has handed out cash incentives for childbirth, encouraged maternity leave and tried to improve the treatment of women on career breaks. Of course, any of these measures could have acted toward raising the birthrate, but they have failed to reverse the trend, as statistics show.
Now the government needs to respond to population problems from a new point of view. It ought to find a more comprehensive approach. The dwindling population is not a mere economic problem but an existential issue. The key is how to make society more liveable.
Housing prices are skyrocketing, young people lack decent job opportunities, and private education expenses are breaking parents’ backs due to the failures of public education, it is hard to expect young people to get married and have families. They delay or give up on getting married and having babies.
The new government reportedly plans to announce its population-boosting measures in the near future. This time, they must tackle the root causes of the problem.
The population problem cannot be solved with a few more allowances for childbirth and child care. State policies on every field of life, including jobs, housing and education, must be redesigned from a standpoint friendly to childbirth and child care. The government must make an all-out effort.
- The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media organisations.