Korea's Fertility Rate Plunges to Global Low

  • By Choi Hyung-seok

    February 23, 2023 12:53

    Korea's birthrate dwindled over the past 50 years from 1 million to 250,000 and the decline is speeding up. 
    According to Statistics Korea on Wednesday, annual childbirths plunged from 1.007 million in 1970 to 249,000 last year, resulting in the fertility rate -- the average number of children per woman over a lifetime -- falling from 4.53 to 0.78. 
    While it took 30 years for the birthrate to fall from a million to half a million in 2002, it only took another 20 years to halve again. 
    Last December, 16,803 babies were born in Korea, which was the lowest in 41 years and down 2.2 percent from the previous monthly low a year earlier. Korea's fertility rate hovered around 1.2 from 2002 to 2015, but then fell steeply again due to a sharp decline in marriages. 
    According to the World Bank, Korea became the first among 252 countries whose fertility rate fell to 0.8 in 2020, and it is the only OECD country with a fertility of less than one child. The average rate in the OECD is a relatively healthy 1.6, and even Japan, which is already a super-aged society, reports 1.33. 
    The average age when Korean women give birth to their first child now stands at 33.5, another 0.2 year older than in 2021. Only 31.5 percent of women give birth within the first two years of marriage, down 0.3 percentage points from 2021. That makes Korean mothers the oldest in the OECD, where the average age is 29.3. 
    At the same time deaths are increasing due to an aging population and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Deaths outnumbered births by 123,800 last year, surpassing the 100,000 mark for the first time. That translates into a natural population decline, whose pace quadrupled over just a couple of years from 32,611 in 2020. 
    A fertility rate of 2.1 children is needed to keep the country's population at the present level, but Korea fell below that level in 1983 and has not recovered. Making matters worse, it also suffered from a net outflow of people in 2021. 
    Only Sejong administrative city had a fertility rate of more than one child last year at 1.12, while it was less than one in all other metropolitan areas. Seoul had the lowest at 0.59 child, followed by Busan (0.72) and Incheon (0.75). 
    Meanwhile, the number of marriages in Korea last year stood at 192,000, down another 1,000 from 2021 and the lowest on record.
    Yang Hee-seung at Yonsei University said, "If the low birthrate and aging population continue, the thrust for technological innovation weakens throughout society, resulting in a loss of economic vitality. Pension payments for the elderly also surge, increasing the fiscal burden." 
    That will soon make it tougher for companies to find workers. Cho Young-tae at Seoul National University said, "Three years from now, even big conglomerates will have a hard time finding workers just like small businesses now."
    The number of people aged 25 to 34 entering the workforce fell from 7 million in 2015 to 6.5 million in 2021 and will decline by another 900,000 from 2026 to 2030. 
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