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CHUNG Sangho

Global Perspective on Korea's Shrinking Childbirths

CHUNG Sangho

Dec. 14, 2005

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As many of us already know, Korea's population of 48 million is tightly packed in a small area, comparable to the size of the US state of Indiana. Indeed, there are many social ills stemming from the fact that we are crowded in a limited plot of land, which essentially amplifies the pressure on Korean people to compete early on in their lives. They are subject to harsh competition for good grades, college admission, job search, and promotion. In addition to these lifelong stressful rites or passage, Koreans have to breathe polluted air and commute on jam-packed roads in their daily lives, all because of overcrowding. No wonder why some people advocate a large-scale outbound immigration, because they would have been much better off if only Korea had only a half of population than now.

Nonetheless, the media are fretting over the declining fertility rate among Korean women in their reproductive age between 15 and 49. They say Korea's economic growth rate would decline by how much percentage points, if the population trend keeps going unchecked for the next two or three decades. Other media reports point out how much our descendants have to shoulder the burden to 'feed' the elderly, out of their mounting pension contributions.

As for policymakers and policy analysts, their focus is no different. They are busy coming up with short-term solutions to boost the fertility rate by proposing more subsidies to childbearing parents and childcare facilities. Samsung Economic Research Institute recently published a research report on this topic suggesting similar policy measures (Korea: Coping with Low Fertility Rate, Weekly Insight , No. 396, Nov. 21, 2005).

On the other hand, however, such reasoning may originate from the fact that we are confining ourselves to the narrow bound of an isolated Korea. Thinking in global terms may help us to reach a different conclusion. Although some industrial economies such as Japan and the Scandinavian countries are recording a 'dangerously low' fertility rate of more or less 1.50 (in Korea's case, the rate is 1.16, the lowest in the world), these are at best limited to wealthy areas of the world.

In some parts of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, the fertility rate still hovers around 6.0, which means that a woman gives birth to six children on average in her lifetime. In some cases, the jobless rate in these underdeveloped regions goes upwards of 50%. As attested by many travel reports, the seriousness of the Third World's unemployment problem can be seen by looking at the roadside, whether in cities or in rural areas, teeming with so many male adolescents and those in their twenties roaming or standing idle.

As a political commentator puts it, the frequency of observing these good-for-nothing young men found in the urban slums and villages is the barometer of that country's political instability. That's because these countries are invariably male-dominated societies, in which girls are obliged to carry out house chores early on regardless of whether they go to school. Meanwhile, boys have no such obligation, but at the same time, they are offered limited job opportunities in regular workplaces. All they can find is odd jobs in the informal sector paying minimal wages, if they are lucky. In most cases, their grievance and hatred toward the society are resolved in violent manner. In times of turmoil, such as civil wars or political unrests, they are easy targets for recruitment as hatchet-wielding foot soldiers or suicide bombers. Even in peaceful times, they would remain as neighborhood hoodlums.

"Clash of Generations"

What is the relationship between these jobless youngsters in remote lands with Korea's problem of low childbirths? David Rothkopf, a visiting fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued in his column ("The Coming Battle of the Ages," Washington Post, Feb. 1, 2004), that the most serious global problems in the future would not originate from the clash of civilizations but from the clash of generations.

In particular, while those living in the developed world will be threatened by population aging and resulting maladies, he contented, much larger number of people in less developed countries will still suffer from the problem of population bulge well into the mid-21st century. The only solution to these twin dilemmas would be combining the north's capital and technology with the south's massive human and natural resources.

If the south's population problem is not embraced by policymakers and concerned citizens in the north as their own, it will come back and haunt them for a time to come. Already, they were treated with a preview of what is possible in September 11, 2001, when the disgruntled young men from foreign lands showed amply that "my problem is also yours."

Therefore, it's not the time for Koreans to worry about slowing growth of domestic population, but to think about ways to resolve the population woes in a global dimension. For example, inviting more foreign immigrants into the country would be a good start. People coming from Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa for work are not just here to take jobs away from us. The simple trick for policymakers would be devising systems and incentive schemes to allow more educated and thus more productive workers to land on our soil. That will be a better way to prepare for an upcoming slowdown in economic growth, while making it easier to support growing aging population.

Cultural Conflicts

Of course, there are side effects one can expect from a more liberal immigration policy. To many of those unprepared for a multicultural society, rubbing shoulders with foreigners would be a cultural shock, possibly leading to racial conflicts. What to do? In general, children adapt better to a new environment than adults, as seen from cases where Korean kids living in Western societies find no difficulty to assimilate. If the potential cultural conflict is what worries Korean people in opening up the door, why not promote international adoption, instead? Many adopted children in Korean homes would adjust and become well versed at the local culture and language.

Some people may point to another problem: How can you expect Korean parents to adopt children from foreign countries when they are reluctant to do so domestically? The reason they are averse to adoption may have to do with the social norm that parents are supposed to support their children, whether adopted or not, through college and even until marriage, and leave bequest upon their death. Some of the obstacles to further adoption may be cultural in nature and thus hard to resolve easily.

But most of the difficulties can be worked out right away by revision of laws and government policies. For example, family law provisions relevant to inheritance to adoptees can be revised so that prospective parents don't have to be faced with such a difficult question of divvying up the family wealth fairly among biological and adopted children. The government can also help the cause by deciding to provide college tuition scholarship to families with adopted children.

Korea's fertility rate can surge instantly with minimal government intervention. After the unification, for instance, people in North Korea may feel that their future will be brighter and desire to have more babies. It might be similar to the situation immediately after the Korean War in the early 1950s, when people exhibited a sudden urge to bear more children. Therefore, there is no reason to be troubled about Korea's low fertility rate. It will not stop the economic growth or bankrupt the national pension fund any time soon. Instead, what's really necessary at this moment is having a global perspective on the question of population and thinking about what can be done at the individual level to improve the situation.

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