The One Thing That Might Doom South Korea: Babies (As in Not Enough of Them)
It’s going to take something radical to arrest South Korea’s demographic and social decline. Societies can counter population decline by having more babies, allowing more immigration, or a combination of the two. The government has bet on increasing South Korea’s birth rate to overcome its demographic crisis. Its efforts have contributed to a modest increase in births but this has not compensated for the long decline since the 1970s.
South Korean women have postponed marriage and childbearing. The mean marrying age for women increased from 25 in the 1990s to 30 in 2015, and most South Korean mothers don’t have their first child until well into their 30s. Measures such as generous childcare payments have contributed to a modest recovery in the birth rate, from 1.08 in 2003 to 1.29 in 2015. Even more encouraging is that more girls are being born. In 1990 there were 117 boys born for every 100 girls. This fell to 106 boys for every 100 girls by 2012, which is comparable with Western societies.
But three decades of declining birth rates and the cumulative shortage of girls has reduced the pool of future parents. South Korea cannot rely on births alone to sustain its population. It will need to turn to immigration or risk seeing its population shrink. But a rigorous movement advocating for immigration seems unlikely to flourish in the near future.
Most South Koreans say that they favour more immigration. The young and well educated are comfortable with living around foreigners and accept that non-ethnic South Koreans can qualify for citizenship. South Korea’s foreign-born population is far below that of Australia, Canada, the United States and Israel, but an older and less-well educated minority are uncomfortable with the changes that immigration necessitates. Opponents claim that migrants can never become ‘real’ South Koreans. They also believe that the government is spending too much on language and cultural programs for new arrivals.
A second line of argument is that attempts to facilitate higher levels of immigration have either failed or been abused. The Overseas Koreans Act (OKA) was introduced in 1999 to entice wealthy South Koreans living abroad to return home through the offer of dual citizenship.
Dual citizens cannot vote, run for public office or seek employment in the public service, but neither are they obligated to perform military service. Some dual citizens have abused this provision to keep their sons out of the military. The OKA has a limited capacity to increase immigration. At best, it simply dissuades even more South Korean citizens from emigrating in the first place.
Even progressives may be reluctant to advocate for more immigration ahead of December’s presidential election. The decade-long dominance of South Korea’s conservatives appears to be ending. The ruling party lost the legislative elections in 2016, and the progressive opposition and civil society are fresh from their successes in forcing Park Geun-hye to step down — at least temporarily — from presidency. In the West, populists such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Pauline Hanson and Nigel Farage have harnessed fears about immigration. South Korea’s progressives would be reluctant to offer their opponents a similar cudgel.
There are at least three arguments that progressives can make to justify an increase in South Korea’s migrant intake. First, it’s the right thing to do. Some 65 million people worldwide are currently forcibly displaced from their homes, which is the highest in history. South Korea plays a part in accepting refugees from North Korea but the problem is global in scale. National borders are not as impregnable or fixed as they were once thought to be. South Koreans may be convinced that they need to do more to be part of the solution.
Second, South Korea’s dual-citizenship provisions could be strengthened to prevent the rich from avoiding military service. These provisions could also be expanded so that it is easier for suitably qualified non-ethnic South Koreans to become citizens. With many talented US citizens currently disaffected with the new Trump administration, and immigrants to the United States feeling less welcome, South Korea and other societies have an opportunity to lure skilled workers to their shores through the offer of dual citizenship.