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Aug 29, 2013

Korea's Low Birth Rate: Problem that May be Impossible to Fix

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 corporations.

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.

While 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.

First, 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 ago.

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.

In 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 apartments.

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 exciting lifestyle.

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.

Consequently, 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 and consideration.

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.

All 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.

However, 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 challenges.

by Tom Coyner.  President of Softlanding Korea and Senior Advisor to IPG Legal.
You can find Tom at: www.softlandingkorea.com
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SeanHayes@ipglegal.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.

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