South Korea’s Declining Birth Rate Calls for Cultural Change

South Korea’s Declining Birth Rate Calls for Cultural Change

Over the last decade, South Korea has gained global prominence due to its rich culture, music, and TV shows. It’s common to see young people all around the world listening to K-Pop and having excited discussions about Season 2 of Squid Game, the renowned Netflix show that brought international attention to the country’s entertainment industry. As a result, South Korea’s immigration rate has been on a steady incline since 2018, as shown by MacroTrends. However, the country’s birth rate, which is known to be the lowest in the world, has dropped from 0.72 to 0.65 from the beginning to the end of 2023. According to Reuters, the South Korean population of 51 million is predicted to “halve by the end of this century.” 

The  reason for South Korea’s declining birth rate is its patriarchal work culture. According to World Politics Review, “employers tend to pass over female candidates because they believe women are likely to leave their jobs when they have children.” Moreover, workplaces have extreme disparities in pay based on gender, with women earning 31% less than men and 95% of companies having male CEOs. Thus, even without being mothers, women have a visibly lower chance of having successful careers than men. Going on maternity leave would only further limit their chances of promotion and disrupt the careers that they had spent years building. The New York Times also states that “discrimination against working mothers by employers” is “absurdly common,” which gives another insight into why women fear that having children may put their work life at risk.

South Korea’s low marriage rate is also an explanation for the downward trend in its fertility rate. The Korea Times states that the country’s housing crisis discourages the young from forming families as “Korea’s household debt has seen a relentless rise without any deleveraging” to a point where it may “threaten [the nation’s] microeconomic and financial stability.” The sheer cost of housing and economic pressures that arise with marriage intimidate couples from marrying and settling down. 

The ideological gap between men and women also contributes to the low marriage rate. South Korea is notorious for the extreme ideological divide between men and women that continues to persist in its society. This phenomenon, called “the gender war,” is the conflict between conservative men and liberal women, often on the topic of feminism. A graph by the Survey Center on American Life shows that the disparity in political beliefs based on gender is visibly harsher in South Korea than in other countries. According to National Public Radio, South Korean women became part of the surge of feminism in the past five years, leading “one of the most successful #MeToo movements in Asia.” In contrast, East Asia Forum reports that men have become increasingly anti-feminist, with “76% of men in their 20s [opposing] feminism.”

“Koreans don’t realize this, but sexism is ingrained deeply into our culture and society,” Hailey Chun (’25), a student who emigrated from South Korea, said. “People fear progressive change because patriarchy has always been part of our history.” In an environment where women are frowned upon for speaking out about inequalities, Chun says, it’s no wonder that women prefer to be single than married.

Of course, the South Korean government has taken measures to address this national crisis. Since 2022, President Yoon Suk-yeol has been handing out “vouchers worth 2 million won (around $1,500) to parents who produce their first child, with another 3 million won dispensed for every additional child.” Yoon has also been creating policies to “further subsidize the cost of childbearing and childrearing,” mostly in the form of cash assistance.

However, TIME states that money isn’t the right solution to addressing women’s refusal to have children. Experts say that “a better approach would be to focus on policies and programs that would address and improve broader quality-of-life issues” that would “bring their own unrelated benefits as well as indirectly help foster an environment where young people feel more inclined to have and raise children.” East Asia Forum also presents a solution of “acknowledging diverse family types” by “legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption.” 

“Whatever the best way to address [the declining fertility rate] may be, it’s clear that we need cultural change,” Chun said. “This is a national emergency, and instead of fighting amongst ourselves, it is important that the nation acknowledges the inequalities that exist and work to create a better society for all genders.” 

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About the Contributor
Heeseo Yoon
Heeseo Yoon, Junior Editor
Heeseo Yoon ('25), Echo's Junior Editor, enjoys writing about world affairs and creating cartoons.