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Conditions for Dealing with South Korea’s Baby Bust [Korea Herald]

(Published: 2024-03-08 05:39)

South Korea’s low fertility rate made the news again recently after a government report predicted that the rate would fall to a new low of 0.72 children per woman in 2023. The country’s fertility rate is already the lowest in the world, despite a spate of recent policy initiatives to address the issue. The rate is expected to fall below 0.70 in 2024, which is far below the replacement rate of 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population without any immigration.

Though the lowest in the world, South Korea is not the only country with a declining fertility rate and rapid societal aging. In Japan, the low fertility rate for years has resulted in a population imbalance where the median age is now 49, and the overall population has declined since 2010. In China, the fertility rate has been below 2.1 since the early 1991, but it dropped sharply in the late 2010s to stand at 1.09 in 2022. The overall population started to decline in 2022 and will accelerate in the 2030s.

Much ink has been spilled on the causes. Many theories focus on how couples worry about the cost of raising children. Others assert that women are rejecting traditional mother roles in favor of career development. In describing the situation in South Korea, Jaemin Lee, a professor at Seoul National University, stated recently in the Financial Times that “experts agree that there are two outstanding culprits today: the exorbitant cost of education and housing.”

A look at subnational data from several other countries reveals an interesting factor that has been discussed less: expensive urban living. In the US, for example, the three states with the highest fertility rates in 2021 were South Dakota, Nebraska, and North Dakota, all in the Great Plains. The rate for South Dakota was 2.07, and the other two states were around 1.95. All three states have levels of urbanization below the national average of 80 percent, with South Dakota being only 57 percent urban.

Prefecture-level data from Japan shows a similar trend in 2021. Okinawa, Kagoshima, and Miyazaki are all located in the southern end of the country. All three prefectures had a lower rate of urbanization than the national average of 92 percent, with Okinawa being only 77 percent urban.

In both the US and Japan, places with high levels of urbanization and large populations had some of the lowest fertility rates. In the US, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, two densely populated urban states, ranked near the bottom with a little over 1.4 children per woman. At 1.08, Tokyo had the lowest fertility rate in Japan.

South Korea reveals similar trends, but with a twist. In 2022, Sejong City was the only subnational division with a fertility rate over 1.0. South Jeolla Province and Gangwon Province followed at about 0.95. North Gyeongsang Province, North Chungcheong Province, and Jeju Province were all above 0.90. Seoul ranked last at only 0.59. Busan, Incheon and Daegu round out the bottom.

What does this mean? The situation in South Korea is similar to the US and Japan, where some rural divisions have significantly higher fertility rates than major cities or highly urbanized divisions. This reflects the long-term global trend of smaller families as people move to cities.

In the context of highly developed urbanized societies, however, it reflects what could best be called “perceived middle-class abundance.” This refers to the perception people have about their ability to create a satisfactory middle-class life. Places with affordable housing, a sense of community, and a slower pace of life offer couples hope for a stable family life. Education in these places also benefits from the sense of community that is lacking in large urban areas.

Though more rural than the national average, these places all remain predominantly urban. Kagoshima, the main city in Kagoshima prefecture, for example, has almost 600,000 people. Cities in these places offer the benefits of urban life with the hope of middle-class abundance.

This is where Sejong City comes in. Among the 17 subnational divisions, the average price for an apartment is the second-highest in the country after Seoul. That price, however, is still a third or more less than Seoul and not much more than Gyeonggi Province. As a planned city of only 380,000 people, Sejong offers a high quality of life and excellent educational opportunities that make up for the somewhat pricey housing. Policies that focus on middle-class abundance should raise the fertility rate gradually as hopes for a better future take hold.

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