President Yoon Suk Yeol has ordered policymakers to find more effective steps to deal with the problem. The fertility rate, he said, is plunging even though South Korea spent 280 trillion won ($210 billion) over the past 16 years to try to turn the tide.
Many young South Koreans say that, unlike their parents and grandparents, they don't feel an obligation to have a family. They cite the uncertainty of a bleak job market, expensive housing, gender and social inequality, low levels of social mobility and the huge expense of raising children in a brutally competitive society. Women also complain of a persistent patriarchal culture that forces them to do much of the childcare while enduring discrimination at work.
“In a nutshell, people think our country isn’t an easy place to live,” said Lee So-Young, a population policy expert at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. “They believe their children can’t have better lives than them, and so question why they should bother to have babies.”
Many people who fail to enter good schools and land decent jobs feel they've become “dropouts” who “cannot be happy” even if they marry and have kids because South Korea lacks advanced social safety nets, said Choi Yoon Kyung, an expert at the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education. She said South Korea failed to establish such welfare programs during its explosive economic growth in the 1960 to ’80s.
Yoo, the Seoul financial worker, said that until she went to college, she strongly wanted a baby. But she changed her mind when she saw female office colleagues calling their kids from the company toilet to check on them or leaving early when their children were sick. She said her male coworkers didn’t have to do this.
“After seeing this, I realized my concentration at work would be greatly diminished if I had babies,” Yoo said.
Her 34-year-old husband, Jo Jun Hwi, said he doesn’t think having kids is necessary. An interpreter at an information technology company, Jo said he wants to enjoy his life after years of exhaustive job-hunting that made him “feel like I was standing on the edge of a cliff.”
There are no official figures on how many South Koreans have chosen not to marry or have kids. But records from the national statistics agency show there were about 193,000 marriages in South Korea last year, down from a peak of 430,000 in 1996. The agency data also show about 260,600 babies were born in South Korea last year, down from 691,200 in 1996, and a peak of 1 million in 1971. The recent figures were the lowest since the statistics agency began compiling such data in 1970.
Kang Han Byeol, a 33-year-old graphic designer who's decided to remain single, believes South Korea isn’t a sound place to raise children. She cited frustration with gender inequalities, widespread digital sex crimes targeting women such as spy cams hidden in public restrooms, and a culture that ignores those pushing for social justice.
“I can consider marriage when our society becomes healthier and gives more equal status to both women and men,” Kang said.
Kang's 26-year-old roommate Ha Hyunji also decided to stay single after her married female friends advised her not to marry because most of the housework and child care falls to them. Ha worries about the huge amount of money she would spend for any future children's private tutoring to prevent them from falling behind in an education-obsessed nation.
“I can have a fun life without marriage and enjoy my life with my friends,” said Ha, who runs a cocktail bar in Seoul.
Until the mid-1990s, South Korea maintained birth control programs, which were initially launched to slow the country's post-war population explosion. The nation distributed contraceptive pills and condoms for free at public medical centers and offered exemptions on military reserve training for men if they had a vasectomy.
United Nations figures show a South Korean woman on average gave birth to about four to six children in the 1950s and '60s, three to four in the 1970s, and less than two in the mid-1980s.
South Korea has been offering a variety of incentives and other support programs for those who give birth to many children. But Choi, the expert, said the fertility rate has been falling too fast to see any tangible effects. During a government task force meeting last month, officials said they would soon formulate comprehensive measures to cope with demographic challenges.
South Korean society still frowns on those who remain childfree or single.
In 2021 when Yoo and Jo posted their decision to live without children on their YouTube channel, "You Young You Young," some posted messages calling them "selfish" and asking them to pay more taxes. The messages also called Jo "sterile" and accused Yoo of "gaslighting" her husband.
Lee Sung-jai, a 75-year-old Seoul resident, said it's “the order of nature” for humankind to marry and give birth to children.
“These days, I see some (unmarried) young women walking with dogs in strollers and saying they are their moms. Did they give birth to those dogs? They are really crazy,” he said.
Seo Ji Seong, 38, said that she’s often called a patriot by older people for having many babies, though she didn’t give birth to them for the national interest. She’s expecting a fifth baby in January.
Seo’s family recently moved to a rent-free apartment in the city of Anyang, which was jointly provided by the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corporation and the city for families with at least four children. Seo and her husband, Kim Dong Uk, 33, receive other state support, though it’s still tough economically to raise four kids.
Kim said he enjoys seeing each of his children growing up with different personalities and talents, while Seo feels their kids’ social skills are helped while playing and competing with one another at home.
“They are all so cute. That’s why I’ve kept giving birth to babies even though it’s difficult,” Seo said.