South Koreans take pride in leading the world in many categories. But one distinction is vexing – the lowest birthrate of the world’s most developed economies. The economic and political ramifications are massive. And yet one wonders if effective countermeasures are even possible.
The International Herald Tribune, recently,
ran a story about private and government initiatives to encourage
marriages and thereby raise South Korea’s birthrate. For the past three
years, for example, South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare has
promoted dating parties for its employees with counterparts from
Other corporations have responded
favorably to invitations from various government organizations to
organize similar events. Meanwhile, “no internal dating” corporate
rules are disappearing as more and more business leaders take seriously
birthrate-related problems, such as fewer future workers.
all of this may sound potentially positive, we find Koreans nonetheless
being highly selective – no, extraordinarily picky – about whom they
marry and even date. The reasons are both traditional and contemporary.
Koreans, in spite of their gregarious personalities, are generally
quite shy about meeting strangers and request introductions for both
public and private interactions. That is why arranged marriages
continue to exist, although they are much less common than a generation
As so-called “love marriages” become increasingly
popular with young Koreans who tend to be more individualistic and
independent, other contemporary factors offset freer social
associations. With the nation’s rapidly developing wealth has come
increased social insecurity. In highly competitive South Korea, too
often family status and family acquisition and retention of wealth have
become paramount in many households.
To be sure, there
are many Koreans who are most concerned that their children have happy
and successful marriages as a first priority. And to be sure, most young
people desire “love marriages” where both partners appreciate and
respect the other person’s intrinsic qualities above all other factors.
the case of parents, “if at all possible” the children should not marry
“down,” as defined by the prospective partner’s education, career,
physical attributes, financial and social status. Which means, any child
bringing home a potential fiance not measuring up to these standards
can likely anticipate some kind of parental opposition.
There are several reports of parents in nouveau riche
Gangnam forbidding their children to date children who reside north of
the Han River. In even more extreme cases, some families insist that
their children only socialize with offspring of families who live in
certain districts of Gangnam or only in certain expensive, high-rise
In the case of young people, their
standards are pretty much the same as their parents’, but naturally they
are going to be much more concerned about physical attributes such as
height, weight, beauty as well as the capacity to immediately share an
The problem has been exacerbated by
South Korea’s declining birthrate over the past two decades.
Increasingly, young people come from “only child” or two-child
households where they have been raised as little princes and princesses
without serious concerns about sharing toys, etcetera with siblings.
when many of these young darlings enter into marriage with a similar
soul mate, one or both newlyweds experience the shock of their lives,
such as dealing with someone who constantly expects special treatment
Two royals in the same small Seoul
apartment do not often bode well for making a long-term marriage. So it
is not unusual for South Korean honeymooners to return home from their
first week together in separate airplanes. In fact, South Korea has
caught up with other advanced economies, such as the United States,
where the divorce rate is now roughly 50 percent.
of this diminishes the likelihood that these only children will produce
more than one child of their own. This same mentality that creates
these rocky marriages also works against young South Koreans getting to
know each other, given their high standards and prejudices and the
aforementioned intrinsic Korean shyness. So it is not surprising that on
average most South Korean women delay marriage until age 29 and most
men marry on average at almost 32 years old.
Certainly, one of the growing factors for South Koreans to delay
marriage is the economy, where today it takes more time to adequately
save to set up a household than it did a generation ago. But what is
considered to be today’s minimally acceptable household is luxurious
compared to what was required a generation ago.
the economic influences can be viewed as red herrings as to why South
Korea has such a low birthrate. Korean families are usually remarkably
generous in helping determined younger relatives to set up their first
household. The fundamental issue is Korean tradition and culture, as
manifested in today’s dynamic society. While this nation has quite
rightly received due accolades for becoming the “Miracle on the Han,” it
has come at a price.
Whenever an observer attempts to
take in the enormity of this nation’s population crisis, he or she can
only be amazed that South Korea’s very low birthrate is actually as high
as it is. One can only wish public and private leaders all the best of
luck in getting more young people to marry earlier and produce more
babies. The low birthrate remains one of this nation’s most vexing
by Tom Coyner. President of Softlanding Korea and Senior Advisor to IPG Legal.
You can find Tom at: www.softlandingkorea.com
IPG is engaged in projects for companies and entrepreneurs doing business in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Korea, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and the U.S.