Fertility rate drops in South Korea

South Korea is grappling with an intensified demographic crisis as recent data reveals a further decline in its already world-low birthrate in 2023. Despite substantial government investments in schemes aimed at encouraging larger families, the country’s population has shrunk for the fourth consecutive year. The average number of children per South Korean woman dropped to 0.72, down nearly 8% from 0.78 in 2022, significantly below the 2.1 needed for population maintenance. South Korea has maintained the lowest fertility rate among OECD members since 2018, and its women, on average, give birth for the first time at the age of 33.6, the highest in the OECD.

Should the persistently low fertility rate continue, projections indicate that South Korea’s population, the fifth-largest in Asia, could nearly halve to 26.8 million by 2100. Despite the government’s extensive efforts, including over 360tn won ($270bn) in initiatives since 2006, financial incentives and support services have not been successful in convincing couples to have more children.

Challenges such as high child-rearing costs, soaring property prices, limited well-paying jobs, and a demanding education system remain significant obstacles. Cultural factors, including the difficulty for working mothers to balance employment with household responsibilities, also contribute to the issue.

The current administration, led by President Yoon Suk Yeol, has prioritized addressing the falling birthrate, promising “extraordinary measures” in December. However, the country faces an uphill battle as concerns about “national extinction” grow. Leading political parties are presenting policies ahead of the national assembly election, focusing on public housing, easier loans, and other measures to counter population decline.

Similar demographic challenges are evident in Japan, where the birthrate has steadily declined for eight consecutive years. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned that this trend could jeopardize the country’s societal functioning. In 2023, Japan witnessed the lowest number of births since 1899, with 758,631 babies born, a 5.1% decrease from the previous year. The number of marriages also fell, dropping below half a million for the first time in 90 years. Factors such as poor job prospects, rising living costs, and a corporate culture challenging for dual-income families contribute to Japan’s declining birthrate. Japan’s population of over 125 million is projected to fall by about 30% to 87 million by 2070, with a significant portion being aged 65 or older.

Yoshimasa Hayashi, the chief cabinet secretary in Japan, emphasized the critical state of the declining birthrate and acknowledged the urgency in addressing the issue within the next six years to avoid irreversible trends.

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