Did South Korea's Population Policy Work Too Well?

Many developing countries adopted policies to slow population growth in the latter half of the 20th century in response to population growth rates that had risen to three or more times greater than those ever observed in industrialized countries. Developing countries experienced rapid declines in their death rates after 1950 with no offsetting decline in birth rates, as had previously occurred in Europe and North America. Some policies had great success, some partial success, and others little or none. South Korea serves as one example of a former developing country whose program to lower the birth rate had an unexpected result: Fertility so far below the “two-child” replacement level that severe population aging and decline in population size is now a very real prospect. South Korea was also one of the few developing countries to have initiated a population policy to lower the birth rate during the period of concern in the 1960s and 1970s over the population “explosion”; and to have its birth rate subsequently fall to world record low levels.

South Korea is far from alone in experiencing very low fertility. About 35 countries worldwide have total fertility rates (TFRs) of 1.5 children or below. There has been speculation that such a development may signal a longer-term change in childbearing in industrialized societies than was once thought. Demographer Wolfgang Lutz and colleagues have suggested that decreases in birth rates may constitute a real change in societal norms, something he labels a type of “low-fertility trap.”1

Smaller Families and Economic Development in the 1960s and 1970s

Following the Korean War in the early 1950s, South Korea’s population remained primarily rural and agricultural. Its TFR exceeded six children per woman. In 1962, South Korea began its national family planning campaign to reduce women’s unwanted births through a program of information, basic maternal and child health services, and the provision of family planning supplies and services. The program was seen as essential if the goals of economic growth and modernization were to be achieved. Overall, the public responded well to the idea of a “small and prosperous family.” By 1970, the TFR had fallen to 4.5 against a background of rapid industrialization and the waning of the country’s largely agrarian character. A 1974 poster (see figure’s top image) exhorted, “Sons or daughters, let’s have two children and raise them well.” In 1981, the government, buoyed by its success up to that point, set a target of a two-child, “replacement” level fertility by 1988 with a program of economic incentives. There was even some mention of a one-child family: “Even two children per family are too many for our crowded country” (see bottom image).2 While such a saying may have seemed at least somewhat extreme at the time, it proved to be surprisingly prophetic. The two-child target was met remarkably quickly: The TFR was down to 1.74 by 1984.

South Korean Government Posters Promoted Smaller Families in the 1970s and 1980s

Top image from 1974, bottom image from the 1980s. Source: South Korean government.

Low Fertility, Aging Population, and Pronatalist Policies

Despite the below-replacement TFR, no changes were made in South Korea’s family planning program. Childbearing was almost universal, population continued to grow due to a still youthful age structure, and concerns about the effects of a large population on the country remained. But in 2002, the National Pension Institute reported that the pension fund would soon be wiped out because of a decline in the working age population vis-à-vis the number of retirees. The government also realized that the number of women of childbearing age was declining and that the trend would only accelerate. In addition, the TFR continued to fall below the two-child level. By 2005, the TFR reached a historic global low of 1.08, but it had been well below two children for over 20 years by that point.

In 2005, an advisory committee to South Korea’s president was formed and a law passed to provide the basic legal framework for a new pronatalist policy. This was similar to the approach taken by two other low-fertility countries, Germany and Japan. The Saero-Maji (“new beginning”) Plan for the 2006-2010 period included provisions to provide a more favorable environment for childbearing. The plan had a long list of measures, including tax incentives, priority for the purchase of a new apartment, support for child care including a 30 percent increase in facilities, childcare facilities at work, support for education, and assistance to infertile couples. In June 2006, the government announced the Vision 2020 Plan to raise fertility and prepare for a society with extreme aging. In terms of the TFR, the goal is to raise fertility to 1.6 children per woman (the average for OECD countries) by 2020, a fairly modest rise from the current 1.2 and still well beneath the replacement level.

To what degree can the country’s pronatalist plan succeed? Minja Kim Choe and Nam-Hoon Cho describe factors favoring success of the plan and factors against it. A return to higher fertility levels might be spurred by long-held family traditions, similar to those in other East Asian countries. Patrilineal succession, from father to the eldest son, is a central feature. As a result, marriage has been universal and births outside marriage relatively rare. The parent-child relationship is often valued above that of husband-wife. Great emphasis is placed upon children’s education, and mothers often leave or defer employment to fulfill traditional maternal roles. Young families often live close by with their parents, facilitating child care.

Failure of the policy, on the other hand, could result from a breakdown of those traditional family values. This tendency has been observed in women in South Korea although much less so among parents and among men. The cost of raising children, particularly for education, along with rising employment opportunities for women, have made entering marriage less routine than in the past. In a 2005 survey, 49 percent of single women said that they were reluctant to get married and the percentage of married women who felt a need for children dropped to 65 percent from 90 percent just eight years earlier.3

Although the success of previous policies is cited as a possible factor for meeting the current pronatalist policy objectives, past policies were intended to lower fertility and reduce unwanted births, not raise fertility. Many European countries, along with Japan and Taiwan, are finding that raising very low fertility in changing societies is difficult at best. Korean women do express a desire for two children but so do women in virtually every other industrialized country, with little effect on actual fertility. The costs of a pronatalist policy will also present an obstacle, likely to be even more difficult to accommodate because of the expected slowdown in productivity and economic growth. Notably, the campaign against sex-selective abortion, which had greatly skewed the sex ratio at birth toward boys, was very successful, suggesting that social traditions can adapt to changing times.4

If the goal is to offset the economic effects of low fertility and an aging society, time is of the essence. The population below age 15, which will gradually move up the pyramid and into the childbearing years, has shrunk greatly compared to their parents’ numbers. Even significant increases in the birth rate will have a limited effect on the number of workers per retiree. The consequences of very low past fertility cannot easily be undone. Each year that passes with an extremely low TFR only exacerbates the situation. The number of births for 2009 has just been reported as of March 2010. In 2009, 445,200 births were registered, down from 465,900 in 2008 and 493,200 in 2007. The TFR declined to 1.15 in 2009 from 1.19 in 2008. Marriages declined as well, from 343,600 in 2007 to 309,800 in 2009.

South Korea, along with other industrialized countries with very low birth rates, has come to realize that no single solution is likely to achieve success. A recovery in the Korean birth rate is certainly possible with changes in attitudes on women’s roles by society (and men in particular) along with the establishment of programs and policies by government and businesses. Korea has clearly made the commitment to do just that.

  1. Wolfgang Lutz, Vegard Skirbekk, and Maria Rita Testa, “The Low Fertility Trap Hypothesis: Forces That May Lead to Further Postponement and Fewer Births in Europe,” Vienna Yearbook of Population Research 2006 (2006): 167-92.
  2. At 38,000 sq. miles, South Korea, with a 2009 population of 48.7 million, is slightly larger than Portugal (population 10.6 million) and the same size as the U.S. state of Indiana (population 6.4 million).
  3. Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs, The Basic Plan on Aging Society and Population of Korea (Seoul: Ministry for Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs, 2010).
  4. The preference for sons caused the sex ratio at birth, normally about 105 male babies born to 100 females to begin rising in the early 1980s as the birth rate fell. It peaked in the early 1990s at about 115-117. By 2008, it had virtually returned to normal despite a TFR of only 1.2. This suggests that, if a Korean couple has only one child, it no longer need be a son, quite a significant change in behavior.