Wed, Jan 09, 2019 - Page 9 News List

S Korea tries to fix demographic crisis with gender equality

Seoul has finally realized that throwing more money at the country’s low birthrates would not solve the problem, and has started to listen to women

By Joori Roh  /  Reuters, SEOUL

Illustration: Mountain People

In just more than a decade, South Korea has spent the equivalent of a small European economy trying to fix its demographic crisis, yet birthrates have dropped to the lowest in the world.

This year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who describes himself as a feminist president, is testing a new angle: showing women more respect.

At the end of last year, South Korea announced plans to remove some of the disincentives for employing women, allowing both parents to take parental leave at the same time and extending paid paternal leave. Employers also get incentives to allow either parent to work fewer hours.

“Efforts on gender equality are very timely,” said Shin Eun-kyung, an economist with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

South Korea is the worst place for women to work in the OECD, despite women being among the organization’s best educated and more highly so than men.

However, the measures go beyond the workplace: Mothers can choose to give the baby their own last name and a tickbox on birth certificates showing whether a baby was born outside marriage would be removed.

Fertility treatments would be offered to single women and unmarried couples as well. Social campaigns would encourage men to participate more in childcare and household chores.

Contrast that with a 2016 effort by the previous government, run by the country’s first woman president, Park Geun-hye, which launched a Web site carrying a real-time statistical heatmap of women of child-bearing age, marriages and births in the hope of spurring competition between cities and regions.

The Web site was taken down after one day, with women complaining it made them feel like “reproductive organs.”

“The country sees women as baby factories,” said Hong Sook-young, who produces the country’s most popular children TV show.

Asked about the latest measures, Hong said: “At least pretending to hear what people really want is a start toward change.”

South Korea’s demographic time bomb is ticking louder. The government’s latest forecast sees its population declining from 2027 and a presidential committee said the country’s economic growth potential could fall to below 1 percent.

Birth rates have long been a policy priority: Since 2006, the government has spent 152.9 trillion won (US$135.65 billion) — about the size of an economy like Hungary or Nevada — on perks for families and subsidies for children from birth through university and beyond.

Last year’s 26.3 trillion low-birth policy budget was more than half the defense spending of a country technically still at war with its northern neighbor.

However, demographic experts have said money is not the main issue: The experience of advanced countries with higher birth rates, such as France or Sweden, shows gender equality plays a crucial role.

The previous allocation of resources drew criticism as well.

The government went far beyond child allowances and subsidizing care and education. For instance, it funded temple stays for family bonding and financed youth seeking brief jobs abroad.

Many such programs are to end with this year’s birth-support budget cut by a quarter to 20.5 trillion won.

“It should have been cut a long time ago,” said Jung Jae-hoon, social welfare professor at Seoul Women’s University.

However, Jung said that the signal the government was finally sending would take a long time to filter through the conservative east Asian society.

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