The number of babies born in Korea fell below 400,000 for the first time last year. The total fertility rate -- the average number of children born to a woman aged between 15 and 49 over her lifetime -- fell to 1.05, according to figures released by Statistics Korea on Wednesday.
The rate is not only below the OECD average of 1.68 (as of 2015), but also those of Japan (1.46) and Singapore (1.24). Only Taiwan (0.89 as of 2010) and Hong Kong have lower total fertility rates.
Korea's total fertility rate dropped to 1.08 in 2005, but rebounded to 1.1 and 1.2 after the government announced a series of measures to boost childbirths. But as more and more people postpone marriage and married couples have fewer children, the rate started to fall again, dropping far below the point needed for Korea to keeps its current population level (2.1).
The problem has been accelerated by a decline in the number of childbearing women and the aging population. Only 357,700 babies were born in Korea last year, the first time the number has fallen below 400,000.
In contrast, the number of deaths last year (285,600) reached an all-time high. As a result, Korea saw a natural increase in population of only 72,000, which was also a record low. In December last year, the number of deaths outstripped the number of births, resulting in the first population decline for Korea on a monthly basis.
"Korea saw more than 500,000 births a year even during the Korean War, but it is unprecedented to see such a drastic decline in the number of births," said Cho Young-tae at Seoul National University. "Soaring unemployment among young Koreans and late marriages have resulted in a persistently low birthrate, so it is unlikely we will see the number of new births recover to above the 400,000 level."
A complex mixture of factors appears to affect the record-low birthrate, such as youth unemployment and an unfriendly working environment for pregnant women.
Lee Sang-lim at the Korea Institute for Health and Family Affairs cited a sharp decline in the number of marriages as the main culprit among many others. The number of childbirths among Korean women in their early 30s dropped to 97.7 babies per 100,000 last year, compared to 110.1 in 2016.
To make things worse, an increasing number of women are now choosing not to marry at all. The total number of marriages fell from 329,087 in 2011 to 264,600 last year. Also, as more and more couples get married later in their lives, the average age at which women have their first child rose to 31.6 last year, which is the highest in the world.
A researcher at Statistics Korea said, "If a woman has her first child when she is 32, it becomes difficult to have more than two children."